Gingrich leaves Democrats wondering: a new Newt?

November 19, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton owes his victory on the North American Free Trade Agreement to a pact he made with a Republican many Democrats regard as the devil.

Newt Gingrich, the House Republicans' bomb-thrower who almost single-handedly brought down Democratic Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 and humiliated President George Bush on a proposed tax increase in 1990, delivered the votes Wednesday, giving Mr. Clinton a triumph beyond the president's wildest expectations.

"He played it like Stradivarius," Robert Juliano, a labor lobbyist, said of the Republican whip's ability to produce 132 GOP votes for the controversial trade agreement. That was 14 more than promised -- compared with the puny 102 votes the majority party mustered for their own chief executive.

So what does it mean? Has the most stingingly partisan Republican in Congress suddenly mellowed into a statesman now that he is on the verge of becoming House minority leader? Or was cooperation with the Democratic White House a calculated maneuver to promote Mr. Gingrich's considerable ambitions, and one that will only briefly mask the gut-fighter of old?

Neither scenario fits, said Mr. Gingrich. The 50-year-old former college professor describes the unprecedented bipartisan lobbying on NAFTA as demonstrating only that "when we agree, we apply the same energy and the same effort to passing something that we apply to beating it when we disagree."

It is a tribute to the Georgia Republican's reputation, earned over eight terms of guerrilla tactics in the service of a conservative ideology, that Washington is puzzled.

"He's not the Newt of old," observed Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. "I don't know if the change is cosmetic or substantive, but he seems to be reaching out across the aisle for the first time."

Mr. Gingrich narrowly won the post of House minority whip in 1989 from a noisy spot on the back bench. After five years of agitating impatiently behind the more conciliatory leadership of House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, Mr. Gingrich became the heir-apparent earlier this fall when Mr. Michel announced that he will retire next year.

With his high-profile role in the NAFTA effort, Mr. Gingrich secured his position as de facto leader of his party in the House. But even before that, he was behaving differently.

He has met twice recently with Mr. Mfume and a small group of Black Caucus members.

"That's never happened before," Mr. Mfume said. "He's reframing his stature. He seems to be intent on proving he is more than the bomb-thrower we have all come to know."

Some of Mr. Gingrich's fellow Republicans say that the leader-in-waiting has been polishing his image for some time.

"I think a lot of people have a snapshot of Newt that is five years old," said Nicholas E. Calio, a former White House lobbyist for Mr. Bush. "Ever since he became whip, he's proved he could work with Democrats on some issues.

But Mr. Gingrich is still widely disliked among House Democrats because many believe he puts partisanship above all else, including legislative accomplishments, personal relationships and the fate of the House as an institution.

By his own count, Mr. Gingrich has launched or advanced six separate successful ethics actions against his colleagues -- most of them Democrats. The best known was the 1989 investigation into charges that Mr. Wright had accepted illegal profits from a book deal -- charges that ultimately prompted the speaker to resign.

"It makes people uncomfortable to be around me because I'm willing to insist on a tough standard," Mr. Gingrich acknowledged. But he said the charge that he is willing to destroy the institution to defeat Democrats "is a distortion by the people who defend corruption."

The Georgian also makes no apology for the new stridence he has brought to the GOP in the House, a virtually powerless group that only gets its way by annoying the controlling Democrats with parliamentary tactics.

"I believe it would be good for America to end 40 years of Democratic monopoly in the House," Mr. Gingrich said. "I believe as a matter of both public policy and partisan policy, one of our major objectives ought to be to elect a Republican speaker."

It's also clear that a Republican speaker elected in the next few years would likely be Mr. Gingrich.

Distrust of Mr. Gingrich among Democrats is so deep that there was a real fear he would double-cross Mr. Clinton on the NAFTA vote.

Mr. Gingrich made a deal with the White House that he would deliver 118 votes for the trade deal, if the Democrats contributed a minimum of 100. The GOP whip held back his forces until the Democrats met their quota on the morning of the vote, but then it came through with a bonanza.

Mr. Gingrich said there are no guarantees for such bipartisanship in the future, even on an issue such as health care reform, where the Democrats are also badly divided.

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