Signs of erosion began to appear Wednesday in House Democratic support for embattled Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) as the House Ethics Committee began deliberating Republican charges of misconduct against him.
Amidst growing anxiety over what the committee will say, several veteran Democrats said privately that they doubt Wright can keep the Speaker’s post if there is a damaging report on his financial affairs.
“There’s a whole series of events that has raised that question mark,” said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley). Wright’s handling of the failed congressional pay increase, the paucity of legislation on the House floor and the prolonged ethics investigation into his affairs have created a general sense of anxiety in the House, Panetta added.
Other Democrats said that the jockeying already has begun for top posts in case there is a vacancy in the Speaker’s chair or any other major party job in the near future.
Wright, who said Tuesday that he might step down if the report undermined Democrats’ confidence in him, insisted Wednesday that his party is united behind his leadership.
“I think after this I will be stronger than ever,” the Speaker told reporters. “I’m saying basically that my colleagues have confidence in me or they tell me they do.”
But the mood was far from upbeat among several members who spoke on condition that they remain anonymous.
“Jim’s been so weakened that I don’t know if he can serve effectively as Speaker,” said one veteran Democrat, who asked not to be named. “We’ve been damaged severely as a party.”
A House Democratic source added: “Everyone is very queasy. Three weeks ago, everyone thought it would work out all right. Now, nobody knows.
“I think (his chances of survival) are 50-50, or maybe 60-40. In other words, a not unsubstantial chance he won’t make it,” added the source, who also requested anonymity.
Another Democratic House member said that Wright’s comments startled him, adding: “Raising the specter of stepping aside . . . makes him look like he thinks he’s got a big problem.”
Remarks Different in Tone
The Democrats’ remarks contrasted sharply in tone and substance from what many had been saying only a few days ago. Before Wednesday, few if any Democrats suggested that Wright might lose his House leadership position as a result of the inquiry. While he undoubtedly would be the target of some criticism, many predicted, his standing among his Democratic colleagues would not suffer.
Tuesday, House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and 15 other Democrats circulated a letter among all House members charging that the investigation was becoming a “political circus” and that Republican members were being pressured to take a hard line against Wright.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), chairman of a task force on a Democratic agenda who has been a defender of Wright, said that he has seen no signs of eroding support. “I think the leadership is united and the (party) membership is united,” Hoyer said.
“Jim Wright will be Speaker in 1990 and 1991, as well.”
In a related development, Wright’s chief accuser, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), appeared to be leading his main rival in a race for House Republican whip, the No. 2 leadership spot held by Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), who has been nominated by President Bush to be defense secretary.
A victory by Gingrich, who brought the charges that led to the nine-month-old inquiry by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct--as the ethics panel is known officially--presumably would give him a better platform to pursue the allegations against Wright. Gingrich is opposed in the race by Rep. Edward R. Madigan (R-Ill.). The House Republican who currently holds the No. 3 leadership post, Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, is expected to announce today that he will not seek the whip position.
Meantime, the 12-member ethics panel began to ponder the case against Wright but prospects dimmed that it would report next week, before the House leaves on its Easter recess.
A member of the panel told a colleague that the committee would not be finished for another two weeks at least, despite putting in long hours on the Wright case.
Wright’s surprising statement that he might step down as Speaker if he lost Democratic support raised many eyebrows in the House.
“I had always assumed he would fight a hard-nosed battle on this . . . but he may feel tired of being bruised and beat about the head,” said a Midwestern Democrat, who asked not to be named. “Hopefully, the committee report will be clear-cut: either horrendous or nothing. The fear is that it will be in-between.”
Rep. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio) said he was surprised by Wright’s statement about the possibility of stepping aside.
“I can’t figure it out,” Hall said. “I tried all day to read between the lines.” Wright’s authority already has been damaged, said another Democrat who asked to remain anonymous. “This has clearly weakened him as to his leadership effectiveness . . . People are more willing to challenge you if your authority is eroding.”
Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), however, said that he doubts the Speaker would be forced from office by the ethics panel’s report.
“My honest-to-God opinion is (that) Jim Wright may have conceivably skirted the edges of morality but was careful not to overtly violate the rules of the House. My suspicion is the Ethics Committee will reach the same conclusion. . . . “
Asked if he expects a recommendation to reprimand the Speaker, Brown replied: “Not a reprimand . . . an admonishment, something cautionary: don’t skate quite so close to the line.”
The committee is investigating Wright’s complicated business dealings with George Mallick, a Ft. Worth real estate developer who formed a company in 1979 to provide financial assistance to Wright. Another issue is whether Wright improperly evaded limits on outside income or campaign contributions by collecting $55,000 in royalties for his 117-page book, “Reflections of a Public Man.”
Several Democrats said that Wright could be more vulnerable because he has not established the same broad base of support among House members enjoyed by his predecessor, Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. of Massachusetts.
But Wright’s colleagues--even those on the bottom rungs of the leadership ladder--said that they do not know how to persuade Wright to step aside even, if the report is regarded as damaging to him and the Democratic Party.
“The situation is very uncomfortable,” one member said. “He’s a real stubborn guy.”
Republicans agreed that the Democrats are on the spot.
“The Democrats are damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” said Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield). “The information (against Wright), even if it’s not a direct violation of the rules--it’s so unseemly. Can the Democrats stonewall that?. . . . There is a degree of fatalism on the Democratic side. . . . The Democratic caucus will have to decide: Should we carry a wounded guy, or cut our losses? That’s the political decision that has to be made.”
Staff writer Paul Houston contributed to this story.