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GOP Works to Bolster Support for Gingrich

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with the first crack in the armor of party unity, Republican leaders Monday worked to shore up support for House Speaker Newt Gingrich by staging a mass conference call to brief GOP lawmakers on the ethics case clouding his future.

The telephone discussion--joined by more than 100 House Republicans--was arranged amid new signs that the ethics investigation could drag well into the new year, as well as the first public sign that GOP support for the embattled speaker may be eroding.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican and a Gingrich backer, said that he has heard little from his constituents concerning the speaker’s ethics case. But he is concerned enough that he has asked his staff to direct all calls to his office on the matter directly to him. “On something like this I want to get a feel for what people feel and why they are feeling it,” Boehlert said.

Boehlert was one of the lawmakers who participated in the conference call by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and other GOP officials--the first effort to address House Republicans directly since Gingrich admitted to the ethical breaches. Lawmakers were allowed only to submit questions in advance; there was no free-flowing exchange of views. The lawmakers were encouraged, however, to call a designated telephone number at the National Republican Congressional Committee with any questions about the case.

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GOP leaders urged rank-and-file members to stick with Gingrich and portrayed efforts to force him out of the speakership as a politically motivated vendetta.

By injecting politics into the ethics process, “the Democrats are trying to do what they could not on Election Day,” one Republican said, in summarizing the leadership’s pitch.

Rep. Michael P. Forbes of New York, a second-term Gingrich loyalist, Monday became the first Republican to oppose the Georgian’s reelection as speaker in the wake of his admission that he gave false information to the House Ethics Committee about a college course he taught.

“Every Republican in the House understood the seriousness of these actions except, it appears, Mr. Gingrich,” Forbes said in an opinion piece submitted for publication in the New York Times. “Newt Gingrich, the talented visionary and tactician . . . is not the man to lead the charge in the 105th Congress.”

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Republicans have been pushing for resolution of the case by Jan. 7, when the House is scheduled to vote on whether to give Gingrich a second term as speaker. But Ethics Committee leaders failed Monday to reach agreement on a timetable for finishing the case. A source familiar with the discussions said there was a “growing understanding that it can’t be completed by” Jan. 7.

Several of the committee’s 10 members still need to be briefed on the investigation, which was conducted in secret by a four-member subcommittee.

At issue is an investigation of a college course that Gingrich taught in 1993-95 with financial support from a nonprofit foundation. Gingrich earlier this month admitted that he violated House rules by providing false information to the committee about the course’s relationship with GOPAC, his political action committee, and by failing to ensure that he complied with laws prohibiting the use of tax-exempt contributions for partisan purposes. His allies argue that the admissions are not serious because Gingrich did not intend to violate the rules.

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The Ethics Committee will decide what punishment to recommend to the full House, which must vote on the matter. The lightest formal punishment is a reprimand, which Gingrich’s allies think is the appropriate sanction. The harshest is expulsion, which no one thinks likely in this case. But if the House took the intermediate step of censuring Gingrich, he would automatically lose his post as speaker.

Without a recommendation from the ethics panel before Jan. 7, Republicans will be in the awkward position of voting on Gingrich’s reelection as speaker while the prospect still looms that he would have to relinquish the job.

Gingrich cannot afford to lose the support of many Republicans, because the GOP controls the House by only a 227-208 margin. If 20 Republicans abstained, it would deliver the speakership to the Democrats’ nominee, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). A more likely outcome is that the Republicans would come up with a new nominee for speakership if that many Republicans were prepared to defect.

But Republican leaders have been insisting that there has been no erosion of support for Gingrich and that he has no plan to step aside as speaker. They brushed off Forbes’ apparent defection as an idiosyncratic comment by someone who saw local political advantage in keeping a distance from Gingrich, who has been especially unpopular in the Northeast.

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“He is not the kind of member who has the esteem of everyone else,” said a senior Republican aide. “As Forbes goes, so goes Forbes.”

But an aide to another senior Republican said that Forbes may not be alone in feeling political heat from the controversy. “The pressure is only going to become greater for a number of Republicans narrowly elected,” the aide said.

In his opinion piece, Forbes said that Gingrich’s “admissions and ongoing investigations by the Ethics Committee and the IRS will distract us all from the important work at hand. Indeed, a wounded speaker who must lay low will not serve well the cause he championed.”

Lauren Maddox, a Gingrich spokeswoman, said of Forbes: “We believe, once he has an opportunity to fully review the facts of the case, he will recognize that Republicans will do the right thing and support Newt.”

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GOP sources said that Gingrich, in a personal effort to shore up his position, has been calling individual House Republicans to answer questions and explain himself.

One reason many Republicans remain confident that Gingrich will be reelected speaker is because so far no one else has stepped forward as a GOP alternative. Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has been mentioned as a possible interim speaker, but he has said that he will support Gingrich next week.

In a fairly typical comment from other GOP House members, California Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield said through a spokesman: “I have read the ethics report and there is nothing in it to preclude me from supporting the speaker.”

Times staff writer Faye Fiore contributed to this story.

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