WASHINGTON -- As the House leadership assembled before a roomful of reporters yesterday to lay out its agenda for the 105th Congress, House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a few opening remarks -- then ducked out a door behind the podium.
A month and a half after being reprimanded by his colleagues and slapped with a $300,000 penalty for ethics violations, the once loquacious and ubiquitous House speaker has slipped into the quiet shadows of the Capitol.
Avoiding the press at every turn, and keeping his profile uncharacteristically low, he has refused to answer questions about when -- and how -- he plans to pay the hefty fine, leaving his aides to provide bits of information.
He has also left his colleagues defending themselves against VTC complaints that the House has accomplished little in its first two months -- and left them wondering whether the Georgia Republican will survive as their leader.
At yesterday's briefing, Gingrich's disappearing act, and his detachment from the presentation, was so pointed that reporters asked Majority Leader Dick Armey who was running the place.
"The speaker is running the House," the Texas Republican responded. "The speaker is the speaker."
Trying to explain Gingrich's quick escape from the briefing, Armey said, "The speaker has, because he's so busy, a busy schedule."
House Republicans say Gingrich has decided to go underground, embark on a disciplined program of self-renewal (including losing weight) and keep his public exposure to a minimum in hopes of diffusing the controversy that surrounds him.
Christina Martin, the speaker's spokeswoman, says Gingrich has made no decision yet about how to pay the $300,000 penalty levied against him by the House in January.
She said he and his lawyer, Randy Evans, would take up to six months to review his options.
Those options include digging into his personal funds, an alternative many believe is the safest route, but that could wipe out his savings or create debt. What's more, many colleagues are pleading with Gingrich not to use his personal funds because they're worried about the precedent it would set that could affect them if they run into trouble.
Other options are fraught with more complications because of the possibility of contributions from special interests.
They include setting up a legal defense fund or a special fund for donations, using money from his political action committee or using part of the $1 million his campaign committee has in the bank.
Martin says the speaker's attorney will run each option by the House ethics committee and the Federal Election Commission "to make sure it's completely acceptable to both."
But Gingrich has not yet sought advice from the FEC, said Ian Stirton, spokesman for the commission. If Gingrich decided to dig into campaign funds, the FEC would have to decide whether the $300,000 penalty constituted a personal expense. FEC rules bar the use of campaign money for personal use.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, the senior Democrat on the ethics committee that decided Gingrich's penalty, said he thought payment from personal funds was the only legitimate option.
"It's a penalty -- that denotes personal obligation," said Cardin, no longer a member of the ethics committee.
He added that he thought it was reasonable for Gingrich to request a delayed payment schedule if he was unable to immediately pay $300,000.
But Gingrich's troubles don't necessarily end with his ethics committee debt. The Internal Revenue Service is conducting an inquiry into whether Gingrich used tax-exempt organizations for political purposes.
"Whether he survives or not is a very big question," said one Republican House member who spoke on the condition he not be identified. "My colleagues are all saying the same thing."
So precarious is Gingrich's position that, according to the New ,, Republic magazine, more than 60 Democratic and Republican staffers have set up a secret betting pool -- using code names of former presidents and first ladies -- to guess the day the speaker might step down.
Aside from the uncertainty of the speaker's fate, Republicans have had to contend with the fact that there is little to show for their first two months of work.
The 13-point agenda unveiled yesterday -- it included such broad pledges as "improve America's schools" and "strengthen America's families" -- was "the commitment of a legislative majority to two years of work," Gingrich said, as opposed to the agenda of a newly empowered party in 1995 plowing through its "Contract With America" in a blaze of activity.
"That distinction is very important," he said.
With the speaker in such shaky standing, some Republicans are said to be jockeying for position, ready to assume the top post should Gingrich fall.
Asked at yesterday's briefing -- after Gingrich had departed -- who was likely to be the next speaker of the House, a flustered Armey said: "Oh, my gracious. We don't think about that."
Pub Date: 3/07/97