WASHINGTON - A growing number of House Republicans say they're not ready to support Newt Gingrich's re-election as speaker even as GOP leaders issue pleas to unite solidly behind him despite his ethical lapses.
At least eight Republicans said they won't commit their votes until they get more information about Gingrich's confession to rules violations. Some said they want a House ethics committee recommendation on punishment before the speaker's vote Jan. 7.
"I just think it's premature to get too far out in front at this point," said Rep.-elect John Thune, R-S.D., liaison for GOP freshmen to the House leadership. Thune said he won't make a decision until the ethics committee finishes its work and makes a recommendation.
None of the Republicans said Gingrich has lost their votes. Still, Republicans control the House 227-208, so if 20 members say simply "present" - meaning they aren't voting - Gingrich could lose his job.
The collective Republican leadership has written all GOP members that Gingrich owned up to his mistakes and said his errors were not serious enough to deny him a second term.
Last week, Gingrich admitted violating House rules by failing to seek legal advice on use of tax-exempt activities for political purposes and of providing inaccurate statements to the committee.
Thune, despite his own uncertainty, predicted Gingrich would win in the end. "I think there's an expectation there that he will be elected speaker and that people will fall in line behind him," Thune said. "I haven't detected any sign of defection at all."
Nonetheless, Republicans awaiting the committee's guidance may have a dilemma Jan. 7, because Democrats are pursuing a strategy that would delay a recommendation for punishment until after the vote. The Democrats want to keep Gingrich under a cloud a while longer.
Gingrich is hoping for nothing worse than a reprimand, a House vote that would admonish him for wrongdoing but allow him to retain his speakership. If the House supports a more serious censure resolution, party rules would prevent him from serving as speaker.
The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct - the ethics committee's formal name - must hold a hearing on sanctions before making a recommendation. At least one Democratic committee member isn't due back from vacation until Jan. 5 - only two days before the speaker's vote.
Gingrich's spokesman, Tony Blankley, said he's not worried. "A statement by (Majority Leader Dick) Armey that he expected a unanimous vote is the best indicator of what the vote will probably be," Blankley said.
Blankley said wavering Republicans are just waiting for "all the facts before making a definite statement." He predicted, "If Democrats decide to be overtly partisan, that will firm up Republican votes."
Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., R-Md., said he was "far from a decision" on Gingrich. "It's too early. I want to read everything put in front of me."
Ohio Republican Steve Chabot said Gingrich's admission "causes me some concern" and added: "We've got several more weeks to decide."
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said he will make a decision after he studies the ethics case.
"This is a big deal," Hoekstra said. "I want to make sure I do the right thing."
Jon Brandt, Hoekstra's spokesman, said, "Pete hasn't been pressured by anybody to say anything." He added that it's the leadership's job to support Gingrich, but "It's the job of each individual congressman to determine how to react to that."
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said his vote remains uncertain and pointed out that there can't be a double-standard between the Gingrich case and that of former Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat. Wright, whose case was initiated by a complaint from Gingrich, quit his post in 1989 after the ethics committee charged him with 69 counts of rules violations.
"In essence, he (Gingrich) made his career on an ethics charge," Sanford said. He has to be held to the same standard. You can't have two standards - one for Wright and another for Newt."
A GOP member of Gingrich's Georgia delegation, Rep. Mac Collins, said he would reserve judgment until the committee decides on sanctions.
"If ... the committee doesn't sanction him, then I have no problem with him being speaker of the House," Collins said.
Rep.-elect Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., said he will wait until Jan. 7 to decide and he expects the ethics committee to wrap up work before then.
A veteran New Jersey Republican, Rep. Marge Roukema, said, "I'm not going to prejudge it one way or the other. The jury is out until the ethics committee makes their recommendation."