Chastened Gingrich forgoes victory speech for mea culpa

Newt Gingrich yesterday became the first Republican to win a consecutive term as House Speaker in 68 years, but in a fashion and by a margin which only underscore how his ethical problems will continue to dog him throughout the 105th Congress which he formally inaugurated.

After a final personal plea for support from his colleagues, and non- stop lobbying by the party leadership to limit defections, the controversial Georgia Republican defeated his Democratic opponent, the minority leader Dick Gephardt, by 216 votes to 205, while 14 members either abstained, backed alternative candidates, or did not vote. For all the arm-twisting therefore, Mr Gingrich failed to win the outright majority of 218 that should have been guaranteed by the 227-208 overall Republican majority in the House.

Minutes later a chastened Speaker delivered his own mea culpa in an acceptance address that could hardly have contrasted more with the boastful, all-conquering figure who took took office two years ago. In 1994 Newt Gingrich led a proclaimed radical "Republican revolution". Yesterday, he humbly spoke of "this very difficult time ... to the extent I was too pushy, too self-confident, or too brash, I apologize. To whatever degree I brought controversy or inappropriate attention to the House, I apologize."

But contrition alone will not suffice. Within the next fortnight the House will hear a detailed report on Mr Gingrich's acknowledged transgressions. These include misleading the House Ethics Committee, and wrongly using tax-exempt donations to finance a politically partisan college course which he taught until 1993. Then the committee and the full House must decide his punishment.

As the vote approached, the air on Capitol Hill dripped with old-fashioned parliamentary suspense, as Republicans desperately tried to rally support behind their embattled standard bearer and Democrats sought to postpone the vote and nominate an interim Speaker until final judgement on Gingrich's sins. That manoeuvre was beaten by Republicans, 220 votes to 210, but the final vote was no ringing endorsement.

Of the 227 Republicans only 216 backed the Speaker. Two voted for Jim Leach, the highly respected chairman of the House Banking Committee, one of the Speaker's five declared Republican opponents, two more backed other candidates and six abstained. But there was no disguising the nervousness of many other of Mr Gingrich's peers at marching to the party gun before they knew the full facts of the case.

Adding to their discomfort was awareness they were supporting the least popular public figure in the country. One poll this week found that by a 65 per cent to 23 per cent, Americans wanted Mr Gingrich to step aside, a view shared even by 51 per cent of Republican voters.

Either way, therefore, the Democrats come out ahead. If the Speaker had gone down, they would have scored a huge symbolic victory, exacting revenge for the 1989 downfall on ethics charges of their own Speaker, Jim Wright, after a campaign by a bare-knuckled Republican backbencher named Newt Gingrich.

Now that he stays on, he will be a tarred and inevitably reduced figure, less able to bargain from strength with the White House and even with his own barons, the Republican House Committee chairmen. Better still from a Democratic viewpoint, his continuing travails will be cover for President Clinton, embroiled in a host of ethical controversies of his own.

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