WASHINGTON - Shrugging off a fellow Republican's call to surrender power, Newt Gingrich lobbied the House GOP rank-and-file in private Monday for a new term as speaker despite admitted ethics violations.
One lawmaker said Mr. Gingrich assured Republicans at a party caucus that there were no further embarrassing disclosures to come out in his case. Others said the Georgian accused Democrats of using the ethics committee for political mischief.
"It's not about Newt Gingrich," Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota quoted the speaker as saying. "It's about the ethics process being used to gain control to elect a Democratic speaker."
Mr. Gingrich predicted before the closed-door session that he would prevail when the 105th Congress convenes today, and thus become the first GOP speaker to win consecutive terms in 68 years. There was evidence to support that, as Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey, publicly uncommitted at mid-afternoon, said later through an aide that she would vote for the Georgian.
But even before he stepped before fellow Republicans came a fresh sign of his political vulnerability. In a written statement, 11-term Iowa Republican Jim Leach said Mr. Gingrich was "ethically damaged."
"For the country's sake," he said, Mr. Gingrich should step down and another GOP leader should be selected in his place.
Mr. Leach and Rep. Michael Forbes of New York, another opponent, both spoke during the caucus, according to one lawmaker who emerged while the session was still in progress. Rep. Tom Campbell of California also announced his intention to deny Mr. Gingrich his vote, the lawmaker added.
The political drama surrounding Mr. Gingrich has dominated the run-up to the opening of the 105th Congress today. Election of a speaker is customarily a cut-and-dried process, with the majority party ensuring that its candidate prevails.
With Republicans holding a 227-207 majority with one independent, though, Mr. Gingrich has relatively little margin for error. As a result, he has been struggling to hold wavering GOP lawmakers in line since his admission two weeks ago that he violated House rules.
After two years of steadfast denials of wrongdoing, Mr. Gingrich conceded Dec. 21 that "in my name and over my signature, inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to the (ethics) committee."
In addition, he agreed to an ethics committee statement that he had failed to "seek and follow" legal advice that would have told him he was improperly using tax-exempt organizations to further political aims.
The ethics committee is expected to meet in the next several days to determine Mr. Gingrich's punishment, and ultimately the issue will reach the House floor.
Republicans on the panel have signaled they believe a reprimand is appropriate - a sanction that would permit him to retain his powerful post. Even so, individual Republicans will be in the politically touchy situation today of casting their votes in the speaker's election without being able to hear the evidence laid out in public - and without being able to gauge the public reaction to it.
Democrats have been trying to undermine Mr. Gingrich since his ascension to power two years ago, although as the House minority they stand no chance of electing a speaker today. Instead, Democratic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the leadership was considering a move on the House floor to elect a temporary speaker until the case against Mr. Gingrich is finally resolved.
In comments echoed by other Republicans, Rep. William Goodling of Pennsylvania said Mr. Gingrich had assured fellow Republicans at the caucus that he believes there are no further damaging disclosures to emerge in his case.
Other lawmakers said Mr. Gingrich was neither apologetic nor contrite. Instead, they said he fielded factual questions about his case and blamed the Democrats.
In that vein, Mr. Goodling quoted him as saying that as Republicans, "we don't have time to deal with an effort to keep us from doing what the people want us to do."
Rep. Mark Foley of Florida told reporters that although Mr. Gingrich's critics spoke, they received a cooler reception than his supporters.
"To those who suggested that Newt step aside there hasn't been any applause," Mr. Foley said. "But to those suggesting Newt remain as speaker there have been strong ovations."
There seemed little, if anything, to suggest that Mr. Gingrich would heed Mr. Leach's advice to step aside.
"Tomorrow, when I'm sworn in, I will be the first Republican speaker to be sworn twice in a row in 68 years," he said at a breakfast in his suburban Atlanta district before flying to Washington.
Mr. Leach's defection surprised GOP leaders, although they minimized the importance of his defection.
"He's a little bit of an eccentric, free spirit," said Rep. John Linder of Georgia, a close Gingrich ally. "There's not a group of people that he leads."