FOR NEWT GINGRICH, it was an infamous victory. After frantic days cadging for votes among fellow Republicans who do not yet have all the facts about his ethics violations, the Georgia congressman now basks in the glow of re-election as speaker of the House of Representatives, the first Republican to achieve this eminence in 68 years.
In the Washington wonderland, it was "sentence first -- verdict afterwards." Today the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is due to open hearings on Mr. Gingrich's acknowledged use of tax-exempt funds for political purposes -- an offense also drawing scrutiny by the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service.
Alone among Maryland's four Republicans, Rep. Constance A. Morella refused to vote for Mr. Gingrich. "To re-elect Speaker Gingrich now, before the Ethics Committee has completed its work, is premature and a disservice to the American people," she said. "I cannot support the speaker without knowing the fTC committee's final recommendation. It is my firm belief that to do so would be to dishonor this House and to abandon principle for partisanship."
Her strong stand contrasted with the decision of Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who recently expressed misgivings about Mr. Gingrich's false statements to the ethics committee but ended up going along with the House leadership. Also going along, perhaps to get along, were Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest and Roscoe G. Bartlett. They will face another roll call, after the ethics committee completes its hearings, to decide what punishment, if any, should be imposed on the speaker they have endorsed.
Contrite but eloquent, the chastened speaker stood before House members assembled for the convening of the 105th Congress and apologized three times: First, for being "too brash, too self-confident or too pushy"; second, for bringing "controversy or inappropriate attention to the House," and, third, for causing "difficulty" partly thorough "the natural process of partisan competition." He did not speak to the specifics of the charges against him.
It was a poignant occasion, not least because Mr. Gingrich spoke stirringly about lofty matters -- race, drugs, ignorance and rehabilitation of the nation's capital. Once again, citizens could glimpse a politician of enormous vision whose very talents have undercut his prestige and hurt his party. Only ten of the 227 Republicans had dared to rebuff him. Only Democrats could rejoice from a spectacle that will diminish the GOP's ability to hector President Clinton and advance the Republican agenda.
Pub Date: 1/08/97