WASHINGTON -- In a suspenseful vote that followed days of uncertainty, a contrite Newt Gingrich persuaded enough House Republicans yesterday to put aside their concerns about his ethics violations and narrowly re-elect him as speaker.
Nine of Gingrich's fellow Republicans deserted him during the tense, hourlong roll-call vote.
Five of them, including Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, voted "present"; four cast ballots for other Republicans as a means of protest.
Gingrich's victory margin -- 216 votes to 205 for the House Democratic leader, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt -- was three more than the necessary majority of House members who declared a preference.
His re-election also gave Gingrich the distinction of being the first Republican to win back-to-back terms as speaker in 68 years.
But it was hardly the festive moment he had hoped for.
The speaker's admissions last month that he gave the House ethics committee false information about the use of tax-exempt money for political purposes turned a usually routine party-line exercise into a hard-fought cliffhanger.
Once the embodiment of revolutionary zeal, Gingrich was humbled yesterday into an uncharacteristic apology.
"To the degree I was too brash, too self-confident or too pushy, I apologize," he said in his speech, referring not only to the ethics violations but also to two years of missteps and confrontational politics that have made him America's most unpopular national political figure.
"To whatever degree in any way that I brought controversy or inappropriate attention to the House, I apologize."
Rep. David E. Bonior, the House Democratic whip who has led the effort to oust Gingrich through the ethics process, was unmoved.
"Sometimes, saying you're sorry just isn't enough," the Michigan Democrat said in a speech.
"Make no mistake about it: The drama we've seen play out in the House today is nothing compared to the drama we'll see in weeks to come."
Bonior was referring to the ethics committee deliberations, scheduled to begin today, that will result in a recommended punishment for Gingrich.
As part of the process, the committee will hold public hearings, and the full House is scheduled to vote on a punishment Jan. 21.
In contrast to the cocky, fiercely partisan way in which Gingrich took over in 1995 as the first Republican speaker in four decades, he stressed yesterday that he recognized the need for a more temperate approach.
As if to illustrate his intent, the speaker outlined a broad agenda of overarching goals that included fighting racism, drug abuse and ignorance, and turning the financially strapped District of Columbia into a "great city."
Gingrich later told reporters that he and President Clinton began discussing prospects for a tax-cut bill yesterday, when Clinton called to congratulate him on his victory.
But the cordial atmosphere in which the House greeted Gingrich's remarks soon exploded into a fight over the timetable for concluding the ethics committee process of determining a penalty for the speaker, which could come in some form of reprimand or censure.
A reprimand would allow Gingrich to remain as speaker; a censure would force him to step down.
Subcommittee seeks delay
The two Democrats and two Republicans on the ethics subcommittee that has been investigating Gingrich sought a delay in the Jan. 21 deadline for submitting a recommended penalty to the full House.
They were acting in response to a request by James A. Cole, the special outside counsel conducting the investigation.
In a statement yesterday, Cole said more time was needed to prepare for a public hearing on sanctions and a final committee report that will precede the House vote.
The subcommittee's proposed new schedule called for four days of hearings next week and final action by Feb. 4.
But House Republican leaders, including Majority Leader Dick Armey and Republicans on the ethics committee, resisted.
The Republican-led House rejected the request for more time and decided the deadline for voting on a penalty would remain Jan. 21.
Originally, Armey had scheduled a House vote on the Gingrich penalty for Jan. 20, the day Clinton will be inaugurated to a second term.
He moved to delay the vote until the 21st after complaints that security concerns make Inauguration Day impractical for such a vote.
But he said he would not budge further.
"Cole, the counsel," Armey told reporters, "does not schedule the floor of the House of Representatives."
David L. Hobson, an Ohio Republican on the ethics committee, complained that Cole's request had failed to propose a new deadline, meaning the Gingrich matter could "go on for ever and ever."
But in an impassioned speech on the House floor, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, the leading Democrat on the ethics subcommittee, protested that Republicans were blocking what
had been a bipartisan agreement and that there would not be time to finish the job in a thorough manner.
"I was angry about it," Cardin said later in an interview.
"We had been working very well in a bipartisan manner and somehow that changes in the last six hours.
"As a subcommittee, we have been busting our tails working almost every day for three weeks, and now they don't want to give us the time to finish the job properly," he added.
Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican who chairs the ethics committee, sought to calm her colleagues with the assurance that they would able to complete their work in a timely fashion.
She offered no schedule, however, for how that might be achieved. So far, no date has been set for the public hearing, for example.
The emotionally charged contest for House speaker almost totally eclipsed the Senate, which also marked the official
opening yesterday of the 105th Congress.
"The Senate is sort of an island of tranquillity in a city that has a lot of problems," Majority Leader Trent Lott said, referring to ethical clouds hanging over Clinton as well as Gingrich.
Vice President Al Gore paid a courtesy call on Lott before swearing in the 15 newly elected senators, as well as veterans elected to new terms.
Bob Dole, who gave up the job of Senate majority leader last year to make an unsuccessful bid for the presidency, returned to the chamber yesterday to escort a Kansas freshman, Sam Brownback, as he took the oath of office.
In the House, Gingrich and his allies sweated out the total tally, even as the roll was still being called.
They had worked overnight and early yesterday morning to squelch an insurrection aimed at wresting a minimum of nine votes away from Gingrich, to one or more Republican alternatives, and thus denying any candidate a requisite majority.
"When I went to bed last night, I didn't know how this was going to turn out," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican conference.
"Then, this morning, some people were coming home, but others were heading off the reservation."
As part of the final lobbying, Gingrich, who on Monday night had blamed his former lawyers and the Democrats for his troubles, apologized to the Republicans yesterday morning for the political strain he had put them through.
And unobtainable dissidents, like Morella, were urged to vote "present" rather give their vote to a Republican alternative.
Several of the Republican defectors were members of the freshman class of 1994, including Michael P. Forbes of New York, John Hostettler of Indiana, Mark W. Neumann of Wisconsin, Linda Smith of Washington and Tom Campbell of California, who joined the House after a special election in December 1995.
The most senior Republican to vote against Gingrich was Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, the Banking Committee chairman who headed House Whitewater investigations and was himself chosen yesterday by two other members as a Gingrich alternative.
Other veterans in the anti-Gingrich camp were Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia and Rep. Scott L. Klug of Wisconsin.
Pub Date: 1/08/97