Lame duck Gingrich set to limp on

Despite the continuing furore over his ethical lapses, Newt Gingrich is expected to be re-elected Speaker of the House when the 105th Congress convenes for the first time tomorrow. How long he holds the post thereafter, however, is another matter.

For the time being, a ferocious campaign to keep the flock in line seems to have succeeded. Of the 227 Republican congressmen, only one yesterday was still vowing to vote against Mr Gingrich, and half a dozen, at the very most, are expected to abstain - far from sufficient to overturn the party's 20-seat majority in the new House. To a man, Republican leaders insist that Mr Gingrich will win, and will do so with something to spare.

But that may be merely the beginning of his problems. Despite the facade of near-unanimity, many Republicans are profoundly uneasy at the decision not to postpone the election until after the bipartisan Ethics Committee, which found Mr Gingrich guilty of seven offences, has published its full report, and debated and voted upon his punishment.

That may not take place until 21 January. In the meantime, the committee has been forced to deny insistent rumours that it has struck a deal with Mr Gingrich whereby the Speaker would admit his sins in return for a modest reprimand that would permit him to keep his job. A formal censure, by contrast,would force him to resign.

No one, however, knows how damning the final report will be, nor how public opinion - thus far mightily indifferent to Mr Gingrich's holiday season problems - will react. So, argued a New York Times editorial yesterday, why not wait? Simply, the paper said, because Republican leaders "fear that if they cannot railroad him back into office on Tuesday, he will never be re-elected".

But the Democrats' position is equally ambiguous. For all the frothing against Mr Gingrich, and the party's understandable desire to exact revenge on the man who in 1989 forced the resignation of a Democratic speaker on equally minor ethics offences, they know full well that the re-election of a tainted and diminished Gingrich could serve their interests best of all.

Every day he remains Speaker will be one less day of attention to President Clinton's own ethical travails, ranging from the row over dubious Democratic campaign contributions to Whitewater and the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

Each is potentially more serious than the somewhat arcane sins to which Mr Gingrich has pleaded guilty - of unintentionally misleading the Ethics Committee and improperly using tax-exempt donations to finance a pro- Republican college course taught by the Speaker until 1993.

A more distant, but already potent, calculation for Democrats are the 1998 mid-term elections. Especially under a re-elected President, the party which holds the White House tends to lose ground in Congress. But if the Speaker's chair continues to be occupied by America's single most unpopular politician, that law may no longer apply.

Helping Mr Gingrich is the lack of an obvious alternative. Whatever his peccadilloes, he remains the undisputed leader of House Republicans. Neither of his two immediate deputies, Dick Armey, majority leader, and the Republican Whip Tom DeLay, have a similar following, while the 22- year Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde - a grandee who is as morally unimpeachable as Mr Gingrich is suspect - insists that he does not want the job.

Whatever the outcome, whether Mr Gingrich stays or goes, a brief but vivid interlude of congressional history is ending. The "Republican revolution" which he rode to triumph in 1994 is a spent force, and Washington's watchwords at the start of 1997 are compromise, bipartisanship and "the vital centre".

The feud over Mr Gingrich may bring such noble thoughts to naught. But his weakness means that the House almost certainly will revert to a traditional and less abrasive power structure.

In his first two years, he was the most despotic Speaker in modern congressional history. Now power will return to the major committees, where horse-trading and cross-party deals are a way of life.

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