WASHINGTON -- In a boost for embattled Rep. Newt Gingrich, two key Republican members of the House ethics committee said yesterday that they support his re-election Tuesday as speaker of the House despite his admitted ethical lapses.
That endorsement -- from the two Republicans most directly involved in the Gingrich investigation -- came as the House ethics committee announced that it would begin deliberations Jan. 8 on how to punish the Georgia Republican. The decision dashed the hopes of nervous Republicans who had wanted to know the committee's final judgment before voting on whether to give Gingrich a second term as speaker.
But some might be calmed by yesterday's letter from the Republican ethics panel members, who signaled to GOP colleagues that they would support the lightest formal punishment for Gingrich, who has acknowledged that he gave false information to the committee and violated House rules in connection with a college course he taught.
"We know of no reason now, nor do we see any in the normal course of events in the future, why Newt Gingrich would be ineligible to serve as speaker," said Reps. Porter J. Goss of Florida and Steven H. Schiff of New Mexico, the GOP members of the four-member ethics subcommittee that conducted the investigation.
There are 10 members, evenly divided between the parties, on the full committee that will decide Gingrich's punishment.
The letter provides Republicans with the clearest signal to date that Goss and Schiff do not intend to vote for any punishment harsher than a reprimand, the lightest of the formal sanctions typically considered by the committee. A reprimand would allow Gingrich to remain as speaker; a panel vote to censure him would cause him to automatically lose the speakership.
Goss and Schiff said they were writing to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas to ask him to circulate their letter because so many Republicans had sought their guidance in the matter. "We believe it would be valuable for members to have as much information as possible before the vote for speaker and we are taking every effort to that end," they wrote.
They said expressing their support for Gingrich's re-election as speaker did not violate House rules prohibiting them from discussing the ethics case.
Minority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan, Gingrich's leading foe among House Democrats, denounced the letter as "an attempt by the Republican leadership to shore up crumbling support for the speaker."
Republicans had hoped that the ethics panel could move on the case before the speakership vote. About a dozen Republicans have said they were uncertain whether they would vote for Gingrich until they had more information from the committee.
But as ethics committee members discussed this week the timetable for handling the case, it became clear that the matter could not be settled by Tuesday.
Last night, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland, who had been among the GOP members who had planned to withhold judgment, said: "I believe now that the appropriate punishment is a reprimand. Unless I find out more, I intend to support Gingrich for speaker."
The committee, in its announcement yesterday, said a final lTC House vote on the Gingrich case would take place no later than Jan. 21.
The committee said it would begin the final stage of its probe in a closed session Jan. 8, when the panel would receive the findings of its investigative subcommittee. The subcommittee conducted the probe of a college course Gingrich taught from 1993 to 1995 with financial support from a nonprofit foundation. The subcommittee found -- and Gingrich acknowledged -- that he had violated House rules by presenting false information to the committee about the course's relationship with GOPAC, his political action committee, and by failing to ensure that he complied with laws prohibiting the use of tax-exempt contributions for partisan purposes.
After the closed meeting Jan. 8, the panel will hold a public hearing on possible sanctions, at which it will hear from Gingrich's lawyer and from James Cole, the special counsel who helped the subcommittee conduct the investigation. A committee aide said he did not expect Gingrich to appear.
The panel's deliberations on any punishment will be held behind closed doors.
The letter circulated to all members by DeLay was the latest in a series of steps taken by GOP leaders to shore up support for Gingrich's re-election. They conducted a conference call with lawmakers Monday, set up a hot line for taking questions on the case and sent information packets to members in their home districts.
A count being conducted by DeLay's office -- with about half the Republicans contacted -- has turned up only one member who will not vote for Gingrich's re-election, an aide to DeLay said. That member is Rep. Michael P. Forbes of New York, who went public this week with his decision.
Pub Date: 1/01/97