A bid by supporters of Newt Gingrich to bolster his prospects of being re-elected House speaker backfired Thursday, triggering an admonition from the special counsel who has been investigating the Georgia Republican.
The unusual chain of events was triggered when Republicans close to Gingrich told reporters Thursday that House ethics investigators have decided not to censure Gingrich and instead issue a mild reprimand for violating House rules.
Such a determination most likely would ensure Gingrich’s re-election as speaker when the 105th Congress convenes Tuesday.
But after reports of the reprimand surfaced, House Democrats angrily denied that the two Republicans and two Democrats on the House ethics investigative subcommittee had agreed to any sanction.
Then, in a rare public statement, Ethics Committee special counsel James M. Cole also rebutted assertions that a decision on Gingrich’s punishment had been reached by the subcommittee. Cole said subcommittee members had authorized him to say that reports of a decision “are not accurate.”
The public debate over secret ethics deliberations underscored the highly partisan nature of the Gingrich controversy.
Gingrich has acknowledged his failure to get legal clearance for using money from tax-exempt foundations for partisan political purposes and his submission of false statements to investigators about it. Gingrich has insisted, however, that he did not do anything wrong intentionally.
The Ethics Committee will not begin considering Gingrich’s punishment until Wednesday - the day after the vote on his re-election. The subcommittee that investigated the charges against Gingrich is expected to recommend a sanction to the full committee.
It would be in Gingrich’s interest for word of a possible reprimand - rather than censure - to leak out before Tuesday’s vote. That would signal to House Republicans that the ethics investigators most familiar with his case do not think the offenses are sufficiently damaging to warrant a harsh penalty.
One Republican leadership source, close to the speaker, said Thursday that a reprimand “certainly will clear the air. … I would expect Newt to be supported by the Republican (caucus) when his nomination comes up.”
This Republican also said “an agreement was reached” by the investigative panel, but he gave no details.
However, Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., labeled the report of a deal, first disclosed by the Associated Press, as “inaccurate and untrue. I have spoken to members of the committee with an intimate knowledge of this case, and they have assured me that the story leaked to the (wire service) is wrong.”
Another Democratic leadership aide said there had been no negotiated agreement with Gingrich because “the subcommittee itself has not reached an agreement.”
The New York Times reported Thursday that the number of Republicans unwilling to commit themselves to voting for Gingrich’s re-election reached 27.
The simple arithmetic is that 20 defections could cost Gingrich his job next Tuesday, but no one expects all 27 of the doubters, who have made their reservations known in interviews or statements, to defect on Tuesday. Many describe themselves as uncommitted but sound as though they will probably vote for him.
Gingrich backers in the leadership were hard at work trying to rally the rank and file and calm potential deserters by minimizing the importance of the ethics violations he has admitted.
The speaker was making telephone calls from his home in Georgia. Republicans scheduled a nationwide conference call for their members this morning to explain the case, and said Gingrich would address a Republican caucus on Monday night.
Republican Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane said Thursday he “has seen nothing that would disqualify Mr. Gingrich from serving as speaker.”
Through a spokesman, Nethercutt said he read both the allegations before the Ethics Committee and Gingrich’s response to them. He had not, however, seen a videotape of the college course which is at the center of the dispute.
Nethercutt, recently elected to his second term in the House, said he was reserving judgment on how to vote until hearing Gingrich’s presentation to the House Republican Conference on Monday.
Earlier this week, in a highly unusual move by members of the Ethics Committee, the two Republicans on the investigative subpanel wrote a letter to GOP colleagues saying they “know of no reason now, nor do we foresee any in the normal course of events in the future, why Newt Gingrich would be ineligible to serve as Speaker.”
GOP Reps. Porter Goss of Florida and Steven Schiff of New Mexico said they intended to vote for Gingrich Tuesday and saw no reason why other Republicans shouldn’t do the same.
Normally, ethics investigations are conducted in airtight secrecy, and members of the panel shun any indications as to how they feel about a case until they make their recommendation for any punishment to the full House of Representatives.
Democrats complained that the Goss-Schiff letter had been orchestrated by the House leadership to bolster party support for Gingrich.
Rep. James C. Greenwood, R-Pa., one of the leading moderates, said Thursday night he would vote for Gingrich to remain speaker because his offenses “do not rise to the level of misconduct where you cannot be speaker of the House.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT? Tuesday: House votes on whether to re-elect Gingrich as speaker. Wednesday: House Ethics Committee to hear findings of its investigative subcommittee.