WASHINGTON -- With phone calls to wavering members, Newt Gingrich is personally leading a damage control effort by House Republican leaders to convince colleagues that Gingrich's ethics violations aren't serious enough to warrant his removal as speaker.
So far there has been only one outright defection: Rep. Michael P. Forbes, a Republican from New York, urged Gingrich yesterday to "exercise the ultimate in profiles in courage" and step down rather than seek re-election when the House reconvenes next Tuesday.
Forbes, who called himself a staunch supporter of Gingrich, said in an interview on MSNBC that he was "troubled by the speaker's own admission that he took his eye off the ball in preparing his own defense before the ethics committee."
The Forbes announcement surprised GOP leaders, who were already executing an elaborate strategy to publicize as much mitigating information as possible about the ethics committee's findings against Gingrich and allay doubts about his fitness for the speakership.
The speaker wants the committee to resolve the matter quickly, with a recommendation for a mild punishment, before next week's election of House officers.
But as of last night, the committee had not yet made a decision on when to hold hearings to determine what disciplinary action to take.
Ethics committee chairwoman Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut has said that she was hoping to hold a hearing -- which Gingrich may attend and is expected to be public -- as early as this week.
But Democrats have expressed doubt that the full ethics panel can debate the case and arrive at a recommendation by next Tuesday.
"A deadline of that early date could easily not be realistic," Maryland Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, a member of the ethics panel, said in an interview yesterday.
Ehrlich gets a phone call
Among the GOP House members contacted personally by Gingrich was Maryland Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He said he got the call last week after he was quoted in The Sun as saying that he was "far from a decision" about whether to back the speaker and wanted more information about the violations.
"Nothing's changed," Ehrlich said yesterday.
The Baltimore County lawmaker said that, in the 15-minute phone conversation, Gingrich asked him, "What questions do you have? I'm here to answer them." The embattled speaker laid out the sequence of events related to his having supplied false information to the ethics committee.
"The tax question doesn't bother most people," said Ehrlich, referring to the finding of an ethics investigative subcommittee that Gingrich used tax-exempt organizations for political purposes. "It's his signing off on answers to the ethics committee that was my original problem and remains my problem."
The speaker issued a statement two weeks ago admitting that he had given the committee "inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable" information and failed to "take appropriate steps to ensure' that the college course he taught in Georgia and a related television program did not violate tax laws.
'Blaming the lawyer'
Ehrlich, a lawyer, said he particularly didn't like the idea of Gingrich's "blaming the lawyer" for the false information provided to the committee.
Ehrlich said that, if the facts about Gingrich's violations turn out to be as they appear now, he thought the appropriate penalty would be a reprimand, the lightest possible penalty, which would not require the speaker to step down.
Also contacted personally by Gingrich was South Carolina's Mark Sanford, like Forbes preparing for his second term, who has also said that he hasn't made up his mind about whether to support Gingrich for speaker.
Gingrich tracked Sanford down by telephone Friday night at his family's farm in South Carolina for a conversation that Sanford described as "very pleasant," according to Claire Morris, Sanford's press secretary. The congressman remains undecided, however, she said.
Among other Republicans called by Gingrich was Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan who had also said that he wanted to wait for more information before making a decision.
Hoekstra's press secretary said yesterday that the lawmaker remained "firmly undecided."
A Gingrich spokeswoman said she did not know how many such calls the speaker has made.
While Gingrich has been working the retail end of the damage control effort, his leadership team has undertaken a wholesale approach, defending the speaker in conference calls, faxes and broadcast media appearances. A hot line has even been set up to answer questions from members and staff.
Yesterday, more than 100 House Republicans took part in a 20-minute conference call, according to Rep. Peter T. King of New York, who was among those listening in.
Six leaders took turns explaining their view of the Gingrich ethics matter, King said, among them House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference, and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, an early doubter who now backs the speaker.
The call was largely to advise GOP members on how to answer questions from local reporters about the Gingrich ethics violations, said King. A second conference call has been set for Friday morning.
Campaign's key points
"The main points were that nothing Gingrich did wrong was intentional, he's not been charged with any crime and that [House Democratic leader Richard A.] Gephardt has been up on charges before the ethics committee, too," King reported.
In Gephardt's case, though, a Republican complaint that he had filed contradictory information about vacation property he owns was dismissed last fall by the committee, which said it "does not merit further inquiry."
Pub Date: 12/31/96