NEWT GINGRICH may well survive the acute embarrassment of admitting he deceived a panel of his House colleagues investigating the use of tax-exempt funds to promote the Gingrich political agenda in a college course he set up and taught.
He may well survive a formal reprimand (or conceivably worse) when the Ethics Committee reports to the House next month.
He may survive an Internal Revenue Service investigation into the use of tax-deductible contributions for political purposes.
And he could well retain the backing of House Republicans for a second term as speaker of the House of Representatives in the 105th Congress come Jan. 7.
But his ethics woes reflect a broad and rapid decline in Mr. Gingrich's standing. Where once he rivaled President Clinton as the dominant force in the nation's capital and beyond, now he is a wounded and greatly diminished Republican leader held in low regard by the public.
Transparent efforts by House Republicans to bombard the media with a "spin offensive" putting Mr. Gingrich's ethics lapses in a favorable light are not working. And House Democrats, sensing blood, won't let the controversies surrounding Mr. Gingrich fade.
In one sense, that bodes well for President Clinton, because the public spotlight has shifted from Whitewater and campaign finance irregularities to Mr. Gingrich. Yet the speaker's travails could pose larger troubles for Mr. Clinton in 1997. Talk by Mr. Gingrich of an era of cooperation, not confrontation, now seems unlikely. That could mean nasty showdowns on important issues, including balancing the federal budget. Harsh Democratic rhetoric may also end hopes for a GOP soft-peddling of investigations embarrassing to the president.
With the House at war from within, power on Capitol Hill is shifting to the Senate and Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. He, not Mr. Gingrich, is emerging as the most important power broker.
Beyond the immediate fallout, some House Republicans worry that Mr. Gingrich is turning into a major liability for the party. Next month's vote could make him the first Republican re-elected speaker in 68 years. But looming over his re-election could be a more ominous question: For how long?
Pub Date: 12/24/96