WASHINGTON - The chairman of the House ethics committee said Friday she is pressing for an early and public decision on the fate of Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., that would wind up his case before Congress reconvenes Jan. 7 and the House elects its speaker.
After a telephone conference call with members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Chairwoman Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., said in an interview she hoped to have final agreement by Monday on a timetable and procedure for bringing the case to a conclusion.
The reported timetable would allow Mr. Gingrich to turn back demands from Democrats that he stand aside and not seek re-election until the ethics panel has recommended an appropriate punishment for the violations of House rules he admitted a week ago. But it would also entail a public airing of the charges against him and conceivably could bring Mr. Gingrich before the press and cameras to defend the actions that he conceded in a written statement "did not reflect creditably on the House of Representatives."
Meanwhile, Democrats have been circulating documents that raise new questions about Mr. Gingrich's defense of his actions and a survey of House Republicans suggested some are not ready to support Mr. Gingrich's re-election as speaker before the ethics committee completes its work.
In a telephone interview from Connecticut, Ms. Johnson said, "My goal has been and is to wrap this up as promptly as possible and finish our business on our watch." The committee formally expires with the end of the 104th Congress on Jan. 6 and several of the members, including Ms. Johnson, have indicated they will not serve on the committee in the 105th Congress.
Ms. Johnson would not go beyond that, but other committee sources said the canvass of the 10-member panel, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, found there was "not a lot of disagreement" that the deliberations on what punishment to recommend for Mr. Gingrich should be public. The feeling is, one informed source said, that "the public needs to know and to hear directly" from the committee's counsel, committee members and, if he wishes, from Mr. Gingrich himself.
Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., who headed the four-member investigative subcommittee that filed the charges, said in a separate interview that "on a bipartisan basis, the committee is determined that the public will be fully informed. At the appropriate point, there will be more public revelations. It's going to happen. What we are talking about is the best path to get there."
A week ago, Mr. Gingrich agreed to a 22-page statement of findings by Mr. Goss's subcommittee that he had violated rules of the House and "engaged in conduct that did not reflect creditably on the House of Representatives" by failing to secure legal counsel that would have steered him away from using tax-exempt charitable contributions to underwrite partisan activities and for submitting information to the ethics committee that he "should have known was inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable."
The controversy over the financing of a course Mr. Gingrich taught at two Georgia colleges and beamed to conservative gatherings around the country has burgeoned into an angry battle between Democrats demanding he step aside as speaker and Republicans insisting he can and should be re-elected to that post Jan. 7.
The full ethics committee has the responsibility now of recommending to the House what degree of discipline Mr. Gingrich should receive, which could range from reprimand to expulsion.