WASHINGTON - House Speaker Newt Gingrich, battered by charges of ethical lapses, won a dramatically close election to a second term Tuesday after a last-minute apology to Republican colleagues and plea for their support.
It was a sobering close call for a man who two years ago grabbed power with bravado.
"This has been a very difficult time," Mr. Gingrich said on the House floor Tuesday, more than three weeks after the admission that he violated House ethics rules. "For some of you who agonized and voted for me, I thank you. Some of this difficulty, frankly, I brought on myself. We'll deal with that in more detail later, and I apologize to the House."
Just before the vote, Mr. Gingrich made an appeal to colleagues in a closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement, the second such meeting in two days. There, he apologized for violating House ethics rules and putting the party in an awkward position, something he did not do in his Monday night meeting.
Some Republicans were "looking for that," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
On the roll-call vote, Mr. Gingrich lost the support of nine Republicans, four of whom voted for someone else and five of whom voted present instead of endorsing a candidate. He won with 216 of 425 votes cast for a candidate, just three more than the necessary majority.
Mr. Gingrich now faces the prospect of serving as a weakened speaker. His ability to take on President Clinton over his fund-raising problems has been undercut.
And with both Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Clinton facing ethical problems, it's unclear whether either will have the clout to forge the kind of bipartisan compromises that both have been talking about since the November elections. Without compromise, progress on such issues as balancing the budget, Medicare reform and campaign finance reform will be impossible.
For wavering Republicans, Tuesday's vote was draining and disillusioning, forcing them to choose either a tarnished Mr. Gingrich or risk chaos in GOP ranks - because there is no natural successor to the charismatic Georgia Republican.
"I struggled with it even to the point of when I walked into the chamber itself, I did not know how I would vote," said Rep. Mark Sanford, a two-term Republican from South Carolina. "It was the toughest vote since I've been here."
In the end, he voted for Mr. Gingrich, but his support carried a warning.
"He's used up his last bullet. If the IRS comes back and says there is something wrong, or there is another ethics issue raised, it's over. I talked to Gingrich himself, and he told me he would resign if that happens," Mr. Sanford said.
Mr. Gingrich's victory was sealed after a hectic campaign by his most ardent partisans to calm the fears of Republican members that his confessed ethical miscues would either undercut the party's moral authority or hinder the pursuit of the GOP agenda.
Among those who sublimated their concerns was Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., who voted for Mr. Gingrich despite his fear that the speaker's ethical woes would deflect the party from its ambitious agenda - to balance the budget, cut taxes and shrink the size and reach of the federal government.
"I'm afraid the focus of Congress is not going to be on the issues but on the speaker," Mr. Salmon said. "I think the (Democrats) will seize every opportunity to bring this up, every day, and it'll be a constant distraction."
But, in the end, Mr. Salmon and several other Republicans - including some of Mr. Gingrich's most avid supporters - said there were no effective alternatives to the Georgian's fervent brand of leadership.
"In our conference," said California Rep. Christopher Cox, a Gingrich disciple, "there are several people who aspire to be speaker, but they don't have a fraction of the support he commands. If anybody really took him on, they couldn't make even a little dent in his strength.°.°.°. You can't beat somebody with nobody."
Even those Republicans who did not vote for Mr. Gingrich agreed that there were no realistic options to his leadership.
Rep. Constance Morella, RMd., said, "There was simply no viable alternative. But I can't really with my conscience say, `I'm voting for Newt Gingrich.'°" She cited her uncertainty over where the ethics committee might end up in the case.
Another Republican, Scott Klug of Wisconsin, who withheld his vote from Mr. Gingrich, said he had been lobbied strenuously to back the speaker. Before the vote, Mr. Gingrich himself had summoned Mr. Klug to the Republican cloakroom and implored him not to prejudge the case.
However, Mr. Klug said he told Mr. Gingrich, "Don't expect me to essentially come to the conclusion that everything is hunky-dory, when I can't."
Mr. Klug said he didn't want to be in a situation three weeks from now, after the ethics panel fully airs the case, to have realized that the charges might be more serious than first appeared.
Both Mr. Klug and Ms. Morella said they did not expect retaliation from Republican leaders, but they were willing to accept the consequences.
However, Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., said he had already begun getting a chilly reception from his GOP colleagues as a result of his vote against Mr. Gingrich. He also said he expected to be left out when the GOP leadership hands out political favors. "Now the leadership will say, `Let's go down the list, oh, can't suggest that one for Campbell anymore.'°"
Campbell said he made his decision to vote against Gingrich after imagining how he'd explain to a constituent a vote to support the speaker.
"You look them in the eye and tell them a fib?" Campbell said. "You tell them that it was more important to stay in touch with the powers here because I can do more for the district that way? No. That's not right."
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican conference, insisted that the GOP leadership was open enough to accept differing opinions. "But certainly these members have to deal with their colleagues, and I can't speak for all of them," Boehner said.
Despite his victory, Gingrich still faces further ethical scrutiny as the House ethics committee meets to determine a suitable punishment for rules violations he admitted last month.
He has already acknowledged that he brought discredit on the House by funneling contributions through tax-exempt foundations for political purposes and then giving ethics investigators "inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable" information about it. Now he must face another two weeks of scrutiny as the ethics committee holds a public hearing to air the evidence and recommend a penalty for the offenses.
On the final tally for speaker, nine Republicans withheld their votes from Gingrich. Five voted "present" - Morella, Klug, John Hostettler of Indiana, Frank Wolf of Virginia and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin. Two others - Campbell of California and Michael Forbes of New York - voted for House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach of Iowa.
Leach himself voted for former House Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois. And Rep. Linda Smith of Washington voted for former House Science Committee Chairman Bob Walker of Pennsylvania. (Under House rules, one need not be a member of Congress to serve as speaker.)
Democrats all voted for their leader, Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who collected 205 votes.
After the vote, Gingrich somberly addressed the House.
"Let me say to the entire House that two years ago, when I became the first Republican speaker in 40 years, to the degree I was too brash, too self-confident or too pushy, I apologize. To whatever degree, in any way that I brought controversy or inappropriate attention to the House, I apologize."