The Gop Wants A New Contract With Gingrich

To gauge how far House Speaker Newt Gingrich has fallen in two years, listen to Republican loyalists such as Walter Voight of Ridgefield, Conn. The retired teacher cheered the Gingrich-led GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. But today he thinks the Speaker and local Republican congressman Gary A. Franks are out of touch. "Gingrich has hurt the Republican Party with his big mouth," laments Voight, who is voting for Franks's Democratic opponent this fall. "The Republicans have to have somebody better."

Such grumbling isn't just coming from the GOP rank-and-file. A growing number of House Republicans also are declaring their independence from the cocky Georgian--perhaps not just as a short-term ploy to win reelection. Gingrich's oversize ego, ethics problems, and budget blunders have colleagues worrying that he'll be the cause of major party losses on Election Day. They're so disenchanted that he's unlikely to reclaim his role as undisputed leader of the GOP Revolution, even if the party retains control of Congress. "He'll never be the powerhouse he once was," says a lobbyist with close ties to House Republicans.

LOTT'S DEALS. That's not to say Gingrich is in danger of being toppled by his troops. With no heir apparent, the Speaker doesn't have to worry about a coup. But he'll have to compete with other party brokers for influence over the GOP's post-election agenda. The rising power: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. Since replacing Bob Dole in June, Lott has adroitly cut deals with the White House and congressional Democrats on small-business tax relief, welfare and immigration reform, and health-care portability--while satisfying conservatives.

Gingrich, by contrast, has never recovered from a disastrous brinkmanship strategy that triggered two government shutdowns and turned public opinion against the GOP. The Speaker's image is further tarnished by an ongoing ethics probe into whether he got improper financial aid from the conservative GOPAC political committee he led for many years and whether he used tax-exempt foundations to fund partisan activities. The House Ethics Committee expanded its inquiry on Sept. 26 by announcing it would review whether Gingrich had provided "accurate, reliable, and complete information" in response to earlier queries. Gingrich dismisses the allegations as a "smear."

But political veterans see parallels between Gingrich's plight and that of ex-House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who resigned in 1989 in the midst of a two-year ethics probe sparked by Gingrich. With the ethics cloud hanging over Gingrich next year, "he won't be able to pull off his old razzle-dazzle anymore," says retiring Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.).

PARTY WARFARE. There's even talk on the Hill that if the GOP loses control of the House, Gingrich will step down as party leader. Then, hard-core conservatives would push a fellow ideologue for leader, such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, to get the revolution back on track. But DeLay is thought too unyielding by mainstream Republicans. More popular choices to succeed Newt would be Ohio Representatives John A. Boehner and John R. Kasich, but they're considered too unseasoned.

Most likely, Gingrich will stay in charge of a more dispirited and less disciplined flock, with ideological warfare between GOP moderates and firebrands erupting as the Speaker's bridge-building power wanes. And if Newt no longer can dictate a revolutionary agenda, moderates could forge bipartisan alliances that increase the chance of a budget deal or even significant campaign-finance reform. "The Republicans that survive will want much more power for themselves," says Trinity College political scientist Diana Evans. For the onetime King of the Hill, that may mean playing the prince in someone else's court.

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