Speaker's book deal stimulates sound and fury

January 19, 1995|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Two weeks of relative peace dissolved in the House yesterday as peevish lawmakers roared and postured for more than three chaotic hours in an argument born of Speaker Newt Gingrich's controversial book deal.

"This is not the Reichstag," thundered Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., alluding to the German imperial parliament as he protested a Republican vote that struck from the record remarks by a Democrat who had criticized Mr. Gingrich.

Mr. Dingell, a brash longtime committee chairman now reduced to backbencher status, is chafing under the tug of the Democrats' new minority status, and like his colleagues he has been pounding away at the speaker's literary arrangement.

Republicans, who spent 40 years waiting to gain control of the House, are increasingly frustrated by those attacks as they try to advance their legislative agenda.

So, on a day when no formal legislative business was scheduled, Democrats offered a series of one-minute speeches of the sort used by Mr. Gingrich and his Republican colleagues when they were in the minority.

Among several others, Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., used her moment to chide Mr. Gingrich for his lucrative arrangement with the HarperCollins publishing house, and for the meeting he held in November with communications mogul Rupert Murdoch, who controls HarperCollins.

"News accounts tell us that while the speaker may have given up a $4.5 million advance," she said, "he stands to gain that amount and much more in royalties.

"If anything, now, how much the speaker earns has grown much more dependent upon how hard his publishing house hawks his book."

At that point, Rep. Robert S. Walker, R-Pa., a contentious Gingrich lieutenant, demanded that Ms. Meek's words be "taken down" -- stricken from the record -- and the motion carried on a party-line vote, 217-178.

House rules prohibit personal attacks on members, saying that lawmakers "shall confine [themselves] to the question under debate, avoiding personality."

Democrats, recalling that Mr. Gingrich made his name over 16 years as the scourge of Democratic speakers such as Jim Wright of Texas and Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts, often attacking them from the well of the House, accused Republicans of hypocrisy, and worse.

Republicans countered by maintaining that Democrats were trying to block passage of the "Contract with America," the 10-point campaign document that constitutes the 100-day GOP agenda for Congress.

"They cannot discuss these ideas well," said Mr. Walker, "so they resort to disruptive tactics."

As members shouted over one another, furious Democrats attacked the presiding officer, Rep. Clifford B. Stearns, R-Fla., for imposing a "gag rule" on floor debate. And Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., suggested Republicans were exempting Mr. Gingrich from criticism that would be appropriate for other members.

Ms. Meek returned to the lectern after her words were excised and was unapologetic: "I've been elected to tell the House to speak the truth, and that's what I've done."

Beneath the heated rhetoric were Democratic memories of Mr. Gingrich's ferocious verbal assaults on another book deal, a $12,000 arrangement made by then-Speaker Wright in the late 1980s.

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