For Democrats, the corruption investigation of House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas raises the possibility that one of their most prominent leaders might be brought down or--worse yet--survive the probe as a bloodied and weakened figure on the national stage.
Surprisingly, however, the Wright investigation is creating serious and potentially divisive problems for the GOP as well.
To some congressional Republicans and their campaign strategists, a badly wounded Wright would constitute a priceless political opportunity, a point of Democratic vulnerability to be exploited without mercy--both in Congress and in the 1990 elections.
To some in the Bush Administration, on the other hand, Wright looks like a Democratic leader they can work with on such prickly problems as Central America. From the White House perspective, an all-out partisan attack on the House Speaker has little appeal.
White House Stays Silent
This collision of interests has produced a situation in which a House Republican, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, has been Wright’s leading accuser, while the White House has remained resolutely silent on the issue in public and has privately promised Wright it will take a hands-off approach.
“As a pure partisan,” said one Republican strategist, reflecting the congressional perspective, “the longer Jim Wright stays as Speaker, the better off we are. Tom Foley (Rep. Thomas S. Foley of Washington, who would succeed Wright) is a superb House member. You put him together with (Senate Majority Leader) George Mitchell and . . . they could be a pretty formidable pair.”
Some White House aides, however, are concerned that the overwhelmingly Democratic House would be far harder to work with if Wright were crippled.
“At least we have someone we can deal with,” a senior Bush aide said. If Wright is weakened, he said, the White House would have to try to cut deals with an array of Democratic committee and subcommittee chairmen--most of whom are more liberal than the Speaker.
Democrats candidly acknowledge their own vulnerability as a result of the Wright situation.
“The worst thing would be to have this thing drag on and not have a clear resolution,” said John C. White, a close Wright friend and former Democratic Party chairman. “And it’s going to be hard to resolve because these things don’t come out pristine clear. They’re usually a little muddy. That’s the history of these kind of investigations.”
White said that “from a party standpoint and from Jim’s standpoint, he needs the support of his party, or there needs to be a clear signal he’s not being supported. I happen to think he’s going to be supported, but for this thing to go on unresolved, it will be to the detriment of the political parties and the whole process and to Jim and Betty (Wright’s wife).”
Democratic Chairman Ron Brown, expressing some uneasiness about the outcome of the investigation, said: “I think Democrats are clearly hoping for the best and everybody wants to see a quick resolution.”
The House Ethics Committee, which has prepared a lengthy report on Wright’s financial affairs, is expected to decide shortly after returning from the Easter recess on Monday whether to pursue an investigation that could lead to a recommendation to reprimand or censure the Speaker or even to expel him from the House.
List of Charges
Among the charges against him are that he benefited from an investment company he formed with a Texas businessman while passing legislation designed to benefit his partner; that he improperly pressured the chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to assist troubled Texas savings and loan associations, and that he skirted limits on outside income for congressmen by publishing a book that was sold in large numbers to special-interest groups.
Although House leaders and some other Democratic members have spoken out on Wright’s behalf, comments made privately by some members indicate Wright’s support among Democrats may have eroded. The Speaker denies he has lost any support and says he is encouraged by the backing he is receiving from his colleagues.
The Speaker himself does not expect to get off without some criticism when the House Ethics Committee reports its findings. Although he has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, he has conceded he has made mistakes of judgment and has done things that “in retrospect I wish I hadn’t done.”
Wright recently told reporters he would voluntarily step down as Speaker if he lost his colleagues’ confidence because of the ethics investigation. But after that word circulated on Capitol Hill and some Democrats suggested he was in more trouble than they had realized, Wright insisted Democrats were urging him to “hang in there come hell or high water.”
The crucial question for Wright and the Democrats is whether the 12-member committee, composed of six Republicans and six Democrats, lets the Speaker off with a stern admonishment or finds serious ethical violations. And there is growing concern among Democrats, including some of Wright’s closest supporters, that the committee will find that Wright should be held accountable for at least one or two ethical violations.
“I regard that possibility much more seriously today than I did about a week ago and I know others do, too,” said a leading Democrat who still defends Wright and denounces the investigation as an unfair partisan attack on the Speaker.
Prominent Democrats who long have been associated with Wright are concerned that a harsh committee report not only would wreck Wright’s public career, but would adversely affect the kind of bipartisan efforts in Congress that led to Friday’s announcement of a tentative agreement between Congress and the Bush Administration on a Central American peace proposal.
Former Democratic Chairman Robert S. Strauss, a long-time Wright friend, says: “If Jim Wright is destroyed, it’s a loss not just to the Democratic Party, but to the country. He’s a strong and good Speaker, and if he’s crippled, the process loses. He may have been guilty of some errors of judgment, but that doesn’t mean he has done anything wrong or that he hasn’t been a strong Speaker.”
Bush, also apparently concerned about the need to nourish bipartisan efforts in Congress, has assured Wright he is taking no part in the ethics controversy and has told his Administration to keep hands off.
While some White House aides were willing earlier in the month to discuss the possible fallout from the Wright situation, even off-the-record speculation has gotten scarce.
“We wouldn’t venture to touch that one with a 10-foot pole,” said a senior White House official speaking on condition he not be identified. “There’s just nothing constructive that we can do.”
When the committee issues its report in early April, it will merely decide whether there is enough evidence of impropriety in Wright’s financial affairs to warrant a further investigation. Only after a second-stage probe, which could drag on for months, could the committee recommend punishment of the Speaker.
If the Ethics Committee finds serious ethical violations by Wright, it would issue a statement similar to an indictment, and Wright would be entitled to reply at a committee hearing.
A bipartisan committee vote for doing nothing more than admonishing Wright probably would go a long way toward putting the controversy behind the Speaker.
However, even in that event, say Republican strategists, Wright’s long ordeal would be far from over because GOP critics of Wright would press for release of the secret 450-page investigative report compiled by Richard Phelan, a Chicago attorney who served as the ethics committee’s independent counsel.
Phelan investigated six allegations involving conflict of interest and financial irregularities. Committee members, who have operated in strict secrecy, have been studying the report for more than a week and have listened to lengthy oral arguments by Phelan and an attorney representing Wright.
Some sources have suggested that even though it would be an unprecedented action, the committee might vote to release the report as a means of fully explaining the action it takes in the case.
Expects Report to Surface
Regardless of the committee action, “there’s no way the Phelan report is not going to come out,” says Ed Rollins, a veteran political strategist hired to direct 1990 House GOP campaigns.
“If they don’t release it publicly, it will be leaked and people can make their own judgments,” said Rollins, who contends the Wright controversy already has made it easier for the GOP to raise funds and recruit political candidates. “If the public decides this man has been basically allowed to get away with a slap on his wrist, there would be some outrage.”
When the report does come out, says Rollins, people will be taking a hard look at Wright’s practices “and in this town when the microscope is on, you’d better be clean. They’ll be raising questions of ethical problems and abuses of power for the next eight or 10 weeks and it’ll be hard for him to be an effective leader. The Democrats will have to decide what to do with him.”