Bucking pressure from Republican leaders to support House Speaker Newt Gingrich despite his ethics problems, a small group of GOP dissidents plans to challenge his re-election to the top leadership post when it comes to a vote today.
The most critical defection was Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach, R-Iowa, a member of the House leadership team who announced he could not support Gingrich’s reelection and called on the Georgia Republican to resign the speakership.
“For the country’s sake, I have concluded that the most responsible course of action for the speaker is to step down and for the members to choose another leader for the House,” Leach said in a statement distributed to House Republicans.
Leach was joined Monday by two other Republican members, Reps. Tom Campbell of California and Linda Smith of Washington state. One other GOP House member, Rep. Michael Forbes of New York, already had declared his opposition to Gingrich.
Although a House floor vote on the speakership is scheduled for today, it remained possible the vote could be put off until the ethics panel finishes hearings on the Gingrich case later this month.
Asked as he returned to the Capitol from Georgia whether he had the votes to become the first Republican re-elected speaker since 1929, Gingrich smiled and declared: “Absolutely.”
In meeting for three hours with GOP lawmakers Monday night, Gingrich offered no apologies and made only a passing bid for their votes, lawmakers said. He devoted most of his remarks in the closed-door session to offering his version of events in the ethics case against him.
He answered questions about the details of the case, which he portrayed as a Democratic political vendetta.
“He let the members know that this is not about Newt Gingrich, this is about political assassination,” said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
“I have been attacked, I have been abused, I have been sullied,” Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., quoted Gingrich as saying.
House GOP leadership aides, who still confidently predicted Gingrich’s re-election, and rank-and-file lawmakers said Leach’s strongly worded statement altered the political calculus of the vote. That is because it comes from a senior lawmaker who has held hearings into the Clintons’ role in Whitewater and it directly addressed the substance of the charges against Gingrich.
While crediting Gingrich with leading “one of the most profound and philosophical shifts in legislative politics in the 20th Century,” Leach said: “Winning does not vindicate taking shortcuts with public ethics.”
Leach also scored the speaker’s defense that his violations were the result of failing to seek legal advice and not sufficiently checking material his lawyer gave the House Ethics Committee in his name as “simply inadequate for a maker of laws. … The speaker of the House … must be free of any shadow concerning allegiance to the law or to the truth. … The party’s future and the reputation of Congress are clearly jeopardized by his continued stewardship of the House.”
Recalling his panel’s hearings into Whitewater, Leach concluded: “A critical way for the Republican Party to contrast itself with this administration is to set uncompromising ethical standards and insist on appropriate and timely accountability for its members.”
Until Monday, Forbes, a second-term conservative, had been the only lawmaker to publicly oppose Gingrich, arguing that his re-election would distract attention from the GOP agenda.
Smith, a second-term West Side conservative, clashed with Gingrich last year over campaign finance reform and barely survived an unexpectedly close race last fall. Telling reporters of her plans to oppose Gingrich Monday night, she recalled the controversial $4.5-million book contract that began his speakership and his complaints about his treatment aboard Air Force One during the partial government shutdown in 1995.
“This latest problem of signing documents he said he didn’t read is just a small piece of the puzzle, but it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “Right now he’s in the way of the agenda that we all believe in.”
The development of lawmakers saying they will vote for a candidate other than Gingrich or House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., poses a new threat to Gingrich’s reelection. Smith said she would vote for Leach and Neumann said he would vote for House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, R-Texas. Campbell and Forbes, like Leach, have said they will vote for another Republican but have not said which one. Until Monday, House GOP leaders, who have a 227 to 208 majority, were focused on trying to prevent more than 20 Republicans from voting “present,” because that would give the election to Gephardt.
But as few as 10 House Republicans voting for a candidate other than Gingrich or Gephardt would deny either lawmaker a majority of those voting for someone to be speaker. Since 1879, House rules have required a majority of those voting for a distinct candidate to elect a speaker.
If that were to happen today, House GOP leaders indicated they would keep pressing new roll calls until they prevailed.
“I think easily 10 people would want not to vote for Newt Gingrich,” Forbes said Monday night.
House Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, predicted Gingrich would need no more than a single ballot to win reelection.
Gingrich spoke and answered questions for nearly two hours Monday night. The rest of the time other lawmakers spoke. Only three - Leach, Forbes and Campbell - spoke against Gingrich’s reelection.
Another meeting of House Republicans is set for this morning before the vote for speaker.