Gingrich faces $300,000 fine

Amid confusion and unrelenting partisan feuding, the ethics controversy surrounding Newt Gingrich moved towards a climax yesterday, as the Speaker faced a fine of up to $300,000, (pounds 180,000) and Congress prepared to release an independent counsel's reputedly scathing report on his ethical transgressions.

Three days before President Bill Clinton's second inauguration, political Washington was living two simultaneous lives - gearing up for the festivities that accompany America's four-yearly equivalent of a coronation, yet transfixed by the drama over the fate of Mr Gingrich.

A month after he admitted breaching House rules and then, in effect, lying about it to his peers, Mr Gingrich and his Republican supporters were adamant he would stay. But for the first time, a Speaker has been reprimanded and will pay a "six-figure penalty".

Televised public hearings on Capitol Hill into the report by the committee's independent counsel, James Cole, were to be held yesterday afternoon, before a final vote on Mr Gingrich's punishment not later than Tuesday. Technically, a reprimand was almost the lightest of the possible sanctions.

But it was not clear whether Mr Cole would demand further investigation by the Justice Department into the purportedly improper use of tax-exempt contributions by the Speaker - the offence at the heart of the charges against him. If so, his tribulations will not be over.

In the short-term, the Republicans have emerged as clear winners from a week of savage political warfare, by delaying the hearings to the last moment, when they will be obscured by the inauguration.

The Democrats dealt their cause a blow by leaking transcripts of an illegally eavesdropped telephone conversat- ion between Mr Gingrich, his lawyers and top Republicans about his predicament. That triggered a separate FBI investigation of the leak, turning the spotlight to Democratic sins.

Such is the fevered climate in the US Capitol, in whose shadow President Clinton will take the oath of office for the second time at noon on Monday. At the White House, however, all is sweetness and bipartisanship ahead of the big day.

Mr Clinton yesterday awarded the country's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to his vanquished Republican opponent of last November, Bob Dole, speaking of the country's debt to the former Senate Majority leader. And Mr Dole responded with characteristic wit and humour. "I Robert J Dole...." he began in a mock recitation of the inaugural oath he had hoped to be taking on Monday, before breaking off; "Sorry - wrong speech."

The occasion was designed to send a message that Mr Clinton will work constructively with the Republican majority in Congress, whatever the bickering over Mr Gingrich. That strategy is paying off. Mr Clinton's personal approval rating, according to a CNN poll yesterday, was a best- ever 62 per cent.

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