Gingrich Is On Thin Ice And So Is The Gop Agenda

House Republicans love to promote family values, but these days their clan looks more like a bunch of bumbling Borgias than clean-cut Cleavers. The failed coup against Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich that made for delicious political theater--and gleeful Democrats--has an all-too-serious side for the GOP: It threatens to undermine the Republicans' legislative agenda--and could even jeopardize their slender House majority.

Gingrich has put his waning prestige on the line in a bid to persuade House Republicans to adopt a leave-it-to-Newt strategy. Mainstream conservatives and moderates are rallying behind the embattled Speaker so that talks with President Clinton on a balanced-budget and tax-cut deal don't unravel. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) lent a helping hand by moving toward the more conservative House position on taxes.

URGE TO MERGE. Still, the House squabbling is far from resolved as Gingrich's allies vow revenge against coup collaborators. And it could snarl key initiatives such as trade liberalization, new clean-air rules, and approval of the tobacco settlement. "If we don't learn how to pull together as a party, our agenda is going to be badly damaged," frets Representative Marge Roukema (R-N.J.).

It's not only the GOP's legislative program that's at risk. Protracted ideological bloodshed could convince voters that Republicans lack the right stuff to rule. "The longer it drags out, the worse the Republican chances in '98," says political scientist Steven E. Schier of Carleton College in Minnesota.

Gingrich tried to get his colleagues to set aside their personal animus--at least for the time being--after venting their frustrations at a closed-door meeting set for July 23. "I will not allow another chapter to be written in this tiresome and overwrought saga," the Speaker declared. But behind the show of unity is a grim reality: shattered trust between Gingrich and his closest deputies, Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, and House GOP and Conference Chair John A. Boehner, all implicated in the aborted coup. "It's not clear that this group can work together," worries a business lobbyist.

NEW CADRE. An early test will come in September, when the President seeks renewed authority to negotiate trade pacts on a "fast track"--without congressional micromanagement. He will need free-trader Gingrich to rally Republicans behind this top priority of U.S. multinationals. Trouble is, GOP opposition to trade pacts is growing, especially among populist renegades, who are most unhappy with Newt.

A House divided would also make it harder for Gingrich to craft a compromise between GOP moderates and anti-regulatory conservatives on tougher clean-air rules sought by Clinton. Another casualty could be the tobacco settlement, already facing skeptical Republicans. Moreover, Gingrich will have to struggle to round up the GOP votes needed to approve NATO expansion, a plan facing bipartisan resistance.

Making matters trickier, Gingrich is cobbling together an ad hoc leadership cadre he trusts. It includes Conference Vice-Chair Jennifer B. Dunn of Washington, Chief Deputy Whip J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and loyal committee chairmen such as Appropriations czar Bob Livingston of Louisiana.

Gingrich is counting on this popular group to damp the flames of rebellion. But ultimately, it's up to the patriarch to keep his family together. That, Republicans say, means no more ethics flaps, freelance policy pronouncements, or shoot-from-the-lip controversies. Such a fundamental change in style is so unlikely that even admirers wonder how long the Speaker will be sitting at the head of the House GOP table.