WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich moved to reassert authority over his mutinous troops yesterday as his three top deputies were called upon to defend their actions in the bungled effort to depose the House speaker.
"I'm speaker, and I'm in charge," Gingrich declared at the first of two private meetings of House Republicans that were called to discuss weeks of plotting and intrigue that have left the majority party in disarray.
Gingrich described the bungled coup attempt earlier this month as "a disgrace," and he ridiculed the two dozen members who were involved as having acted like "college Republicans," according to some who attended the meeting.
Responding to critics who say the speaker has often allowed himself to be whipsawed by competing factions within his party, Gingrich told his colleagues that he would assert firmer control over strategic decisions.
"He said there is a single line of authority and he is it," recalled Rep. Mark Foley of Florida.
The speaker agreed reluctantly to hold a second session last night after more than 50 House members had signed a letter demanding that Gingrich's deputies give a full accounting of their own roles in the abortive coup.
Resentment of the speaker's lieutenants springs from two sources: Gingrich loyalists who are furious because of the deputies' perceived role in the coup, and conservative dissidents who want to oust the speaker and believe the deputies betrayed them by first siding with the dissidents and then abandoning them.
But Gingrich served notice in advance that he did not want the matter to drag on further.
"I will not allow another chapter to be written in this tiresome and overwrought saga," the speaker said in a statement yesterday. "This discussion will be the end of the story."
Emotions continued to run high among the Republican House members, many of whom have been shaken and embarrassed by the spectacle. The political soap opera has enveloped House Republicans just as they seem about to achieve a longtime priority -- balanced budget legislation that will cut taxes and curb the growth of automatic spending programs.
Even so, there was no indication that any of the leaders who have been implicated in the plot would be removed from their elective leadership positions. All three -- Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Rep. John A. Boehner, chairman of the Republican conference -- have declared their innocence, although suspicions remain.
"The most important thing is getting to the truth," said Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, who spearheaded the drive for last night's session.
Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio observed that if a leader fell into sufficient disfavor with his colleagues, a vote of ouster might not be necessary.
'200 staring eyes'
"Two hundred staring eyes can be just as effective," Ney said, implying that such pressure would likely force a leader to resign.
The failed coup has already resulted in one casualty: Rep. Bill Paxon, a rising star from Buffalo, N.Y., quit his Gingrich-appointed leadership post last week after he was implicated in the attempted coup despite denying any treacherous intent.
"I think all of these leaders understand their hold on power is tenuous," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who was active in arranging for last night's meeting.
"We're serving notice that if there's any more of this stuff in the future, they'll be gone," he added.
Armey, DeLay and Paxon have told colleagues that their purpose in meeting with the 20 or so dissidents seeking to oust Gingrich was to assess the strength of the revolt and to put it down.
But publicly or privately, each has also acknowledged having engaged in "what-if scenarios" about the possible succession if Gingrich was forced to step down.
The renegades are all conservative junior members who think Gingrich has become too willing to sacrifice conservative principles, such as broad-based tax relief, for the sake of a deal with the White House.
These dissidents say they were led to believe the deputies would support a coup, until the deputies began fighting about the succession.
In any case, the plot collapsed after Armey refused to take part.
Many rank-and-file Republicans say they are particularly distressed that this internal turmoil should dominate headlines just as they are on the verge of their greatest legislative victories.
Yesterday, House and Senate Republicans opened their final discussions with the White House on the spending and tax bills they hope to complete before their August recess begins next weekend.
So far, participants say, the House intrigue has had little effect on the legislation. But the impending legislation, which is highly popular with members, may be the glue binding them together.
"That's all that's keeping this place from blowing up," Ehrlich said.
Pub Date: 7/24/97