WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich and his prospects for re-election as House speaker are consuming this city, but so far few Marylanders seem caught up in the controversy.
In the two weeks since Gingrich admitted violating House ethics rules, Maryland's eight representatives have not received many calls or letters on the subject.
"This is not a burning issue," said Lisa Lyons Wright, press secretary to Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican.
Bartlett has received three calls on the matter, she said.
Other issues, by contrast, have opened the floodgates.
In the past couple of years, the balanced-budget amendment and the government shutdowns sparked up to 100 calls a day or more to Maryland House members.
Congressional staff members attribute the seeming lack of interest in Gingrich's ethics case to the recent holidays and -- to a lesser extent -- the complex nature of the violations.
"I think it truly is an inside-the-beltway kind of story," said Betsy Bossart, top aide to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat who represents Southern Maryland and part of Prince George's County.
But the public might start paying more attention beginning next week when Gingrich stands for re-election and the House ethics committee holds a public hearing on the charges, congressional members staffers said.
The pace is quickening in the office of Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella. She has received about 40 calls during the past two days.
Callers in her moderate-to-liberal Montgomery County district have opposed Gingrich's re-election as speaker by a ratio of about 4-to-1, an aide said.
"People are no longer concerned about what their New Year's Eve plans are, and they are more willing to focus on the national issues," said William C. Miller Jr., Morella's chief of staff.
"I'm sure C-SPAN is going to carry the [hearing]. It will increase constituent interest considerably," Miller added.
Late last month, Gingrich said he had inadvertently given the ethics 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.
After next week's hearing, the ethics committee will recommend a punishment.
A reprimand, which some think is most likely, would allow Gingrich to keep the speaker's job if he wins re-election Tuesday.
Three of Maryland's four Republican House members -- Bartlett, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest -- say
they will vote for Gingrich.
Only Morella, a moderate Republican who represents a heavily Democratic district, has not taken a stand.
Miller said Morella planned to spend the weekend reviewing documents on the ethics violations before making a decision.
"She hasn't had a lot of time, because of the holidays, to really dig into this issue," he said.
Since Gingrich admitted his mistakes, the GOP has waged a vigorous campaign to rally support for the speaker.
At a news conference yesterday, Republican party chairman Haley Barbour charged that House Democrats were perverting the ethics process to claim a victory over both Gingrich and the GOP that they could not win in November at the ballot box.
Calling Gingrich's admitted offenses "very insignificant," Barbour argued that House Democrat leader Richard A. Gephardt was found last year to have made similar mistakes when he supplied the ethics committee with faulty information about rental property he owns.
"This is not about ethics; it is about politics and control of the House," Barbour said.
The same ethics panel considering Gingrich's case did not recommend that Gephardt be punished.
Gingrich himself has recently called many House Republicans, including Ehrlich, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, and the Eastern Shore's Gilchrest.
During their conversation, Gilchrest said Gingrich simply asked if he had any questions regarding the ethics case.
"He never asked for my support, never asked for my vote, never asked for anything," Gilchrest said.
Gilchrest's conversations with constituents on the subject haven't lasted much longer.
For example, a neighbor recently asked him, "How's your boy Newt doing?" But the conversation quickly turned to fishing for rockfish and the condition of one of Gilchrest's old horses, the congressman said.
At the office of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, calls from reporters about the ethics case are nearly triple the number of those from constituents.
Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, is a member of the House ethics committee.
Pub Date: 1/04/97