WASHINGTON -- The timetable now set for the House to weigh the fate of Speaker Newt Gingrich has put new pressure on Republican lawmakers, who must decide in a virtual vacuum of information about his ethics transgressions whether to retain him as speaker.
The House ethics committee announced on Tuesday that it would not begin the final phase of its proceedings against Gingrich until Jan. 8, the day after the full House is to vote on whether he remains speaker for a second term.
As a result, the lawmakers will be casting their ballots without having heard the full case made against him by the outside counsel the panel hired to oversee the Gingrich ethics inquiry, and without the political cover of a recommendation from the ethics committee on what punishment the House should impose.
Congressional experts said yesterday that the mounting pressure could create a climate in which Gingrich was more susceptible to making promises to Republican members and cutting deals in exchange for support that some of them feel they are going out on a limb to provide.
At the same time, they said, a letter issued on Tuesday by the two Republicans most familiar with the investigation, saying they would vote to keep Gingrich as speaker, was good news for him, since it might provide enough political cover for wavering members to support him. And strategists in both parties said that despite the mounting concerns, they believed that on Jan. 7, the House would re-elect him speaker.
Still, the new timetable means that members face the prospect of a two-week period -- between the speakership vote and the deadline for final floor action on the ethics matter -- after Gingrich has been retained but before they must vote on punishment.
During that period, Gingrich's conduct would likely be in the news and could stir the passions of the voters, who, surveys show, already have a highly unfavorable view of him.
In other words, while Republican members are under pressure from their leaders to support Gingrich, they may fall under just as much pressure from their constituents and local editorial writers to oppose him.
Given all this, each day that passes could spell trouble for Gingrich until the House takes its final floor action on the ethics matter on Jan. 21, the deadline set on Tuesday by the committee.
In describing the expected pressure that Gingrich will be under to make promises to wavering House Republicans, one conservative strategist, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name, pointed to the case of financing for the Legal Services Corp. and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Both were targets two years ago of some newer House Republicans, who wanted to eliminate that financing entirely. Gingrich, under pressure from moderates who supported him, said then that he could not eliminate it at once but that he would act to phase it out by 1998.
This strategist said that now was a time when Gingrich might be called upon to renew that commitment.
"There will be enough promises made and gifts exchanged to keep wavering members happy," he predicted. "The leadership has determined that this is a leadership vote and you better well be with us, and they can count votes. They know what it takes."
Gingrich admitted in December what an ethics subcommittee of inquiry had already concluded: that he had failed to seek proper legal advice in his use of tax-exempt money for political purposes and had then provided the subcommittee inaccurate information for its probe.
The ethics committee announced on Tuesday that it was making preparations now for the full committee's 10 members, but not the entire House, to review the material acquired during the two-year investigation.
Pub Date: 1/02/97