WASHINGTON -- In a sharp challenge to grass-roots term limits groups, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said yesterday that he would fight any effort to impose less than a 12-year limit on careers in the House of Representatives.
Mr. Gingrich said he would allow votes this spring on a wide range of term limit options, giving citizen groups at least a shot at persuading Congress to vote for shorter tenures.
But the outspoken House leader said he would throw his full weight behind a constitutional amendment to limit House members to six, two-year terms -- and against rival proposals for six-year and eight-year limits. Senators would also be limited to 12 years in office.
"I will speak and vote against the three-term amendment," he said.
Only rarely does the House speaker take the House floor to speak to the merits of legislation.
Any term limit measure would probably have more impact on senators than House members. Of the 435 House members, 138 -- including Mr. Gingrich of Georgia -- have served more than 12 years. Of the 100 senators, 45 have served more than 12 years.
In defense of nothing less than a 12-year limit, Mr. Gingrich said his own experience showed it takes at least three terms (six years) for a member to master the job of representative. He said the remaining three terms would be the time during which a lawmaker could be more knowledgeable and productive.
He said, "People who want six years will get an up-or-down vote on the floor. There may well be five or six votes (on different term limit options) when we get it to the floor."
Later, Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican picked by Mr. Gingrich to lead the term limits drive in the House, confirmed that members would get the chance to pick from a smorgasbord of choices but he was vague about which one would prevail if more than one was approved.
The multiple-choice approach could lead to a confusing welter of votes and make it impossible to garner enough to pass any amendment.
Members who secretly oppose term limits could vote for one option and oppose the others, preventing any from getting the two-thirds majority needed to pass constitutional amendments. Then they could tell hometown voters they supported term limits but Congress couldn't pass anything.
Mr. McCollum said Mr. Gingrich had asked him to bring the term limits amendments to the House floor in late March.
The Floridian, who has pushed for term limits since he entered Congress in 1981, acknowledged that advocates were still far short of having the two-thirds majority it will take to pass an amendment.
He said his latest count for the 12-year option was 144 votes -- about half the votes needed. There are even fewer votes for the shorter limits.
U.S. Term Limits, a lobbying group, cited a survey by the Luntz Research Cos. indicating that of those voters favoring term limits, 82 percent want six years and only 14 percent favor 12 years. Overall, some three out of four Americans want some form of term limits, according to recent polls.
Ross Perot's United We Stand, America is backing a 12-year cutoff. But Scott Rasmussen, chairman of the Term Limits Leadership Council, composed of 44 state organizations, said his allies mostly favored the six-year limit.