The Re-Election of Speaker Gingrich
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
MARGARET WARNER: And that explanation comes from veteran Congress watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Welcome back, Norm.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Thanks, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain briefly first of all, why did this all come to a head today? In other words, why are ethics charges that have been around for more than two years bumping up and spilling over into this new Congress?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, there are curious reasons for the timing. This has been going on for a very long time, longer than any investigation of its sort. Clearly, during the past Congress, the 104th, the first Republican one in forty years, we had a lot of bickering over whether there would be an independent counsel. That took many, many months.
Democrats now charge that the Republicans delayed the final outcome of a subcommittee hearing until after the election and then after that, Republicans have said Democrats then delayed it so that it would bump up against the essential election of a Speaker. So that’s the basic reason that it’s coming up now. And of course, the Constitution and law sets the day at which the new Congress convenes.
MARGARET WARNER: And then why were Republicans of this new Congress so intent in going ahead and having the vote on the Speakership before the Ethics Committee finished its deliberations, which they’re supposed to do by the end of the month?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There are two reasons basically. One is a procedural one. In every Congress since the first, the first order of business is to election a Speaker. In effect, you can’t do anything else until you have a Speaker. The House is not a continuing body. Every member is elected anew every two years. So it comes back. And there is nothing that continues. That’s why we saw today for those who watched the vote that the person presiding was not a member of the House. It was the clerk, an employee.
Until you elect the Speaker, you can’t swear in other members, you can’t choose committees, you can’t move on the rules. So you’ve got to pick a Speaker. And that’s procedural. And then there’s a political reason, frankly. We do have now hearings that will be held and a penalty presumably that’ll be recommended by the Ethics Committee and then action on the House floor within a week or two weeks. But a delay at this point with what was going to be a very close vote could only work to the disadvantage of the Speaker, and Republicans gauged that if they waited, it would not only be embarrassing but politically it could be very damaging.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. So how much–going into the final days before this vote, how much of a sort of behind-the-scenes revolt or concern was there among Republicans, and what was the Republican leadership’s strategy for dealing with it?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There was deep concern, and we saw in a vote today where, after all, the Speaker didn’t get a majority of the House voting for him. He got enough to win. This is the smallest majority a party’s had in more than 40 years. So not very many members were required to defect from Republican ranks to cost Newt Gingrich the Speakership. And they knew there were a lot of nervous Republicans. And we saw an unprecedented effort by the entire Republican leadership led, to give you a sense of the concern, by the outgoing and incoming chairs of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party committees that give out money to campaigns, to make sure they could keep their members in line, and it was close and dicey. And, in fact, of course what they did was to play the partisan cards and argue that this was a Democratic strategy to undermine their legitimate majority. To say that this was not simply a vote on whether you wanted Newt Gingrich and he measured up, but it was going to be a choice between Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt, did you want to make Dick Gephardt a Speaker, and the argument made to many that the charges here are the political equivalent, as one of the leaders, Bill Paxon, said of jaywalking. And so there really isn’t much there. And that kind of pressure, along with clearly some suggestion that if people strayed from the fold, they might remember it in many ways for a long time to come, was applied continuously over the last three weeks at least.
MARGARET WARNER: And then what was the Democratic strategy? Did the Democratic leadership ever think it really had a reasonable chance of derailing this election?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There were times along the way when the Democratic leaders I think thought that they might have enough votes. And what that would mean is the Republicans would find a way to delay it for a period of time, which clearly would have been an embarrassment for the Republicans. But let’s face it, if Democrats had wanted to really keep Newt Gingrich from getting the Speakership and bring somebody else in, they could have used a different strategy, for example, saying they were all going to vote for a prestigious Republican. By putting forward Dick Gephardt as their candidate, in effect, they were forcing the choice of Republicans into this particular mold.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So going into the vote today there was a lot of debate about really how many votes could Newt Gingrich afford to lose.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain that briefly, if you can.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, as we noticed when the clerk announced the winner, the rules say you don’t need an absolute majority of all the members of the House–that’s 218. You need a majority of all of those voting for a candidate. The alternative is to vote and vote “present.” And as it turned out, of course, a vote that said “present” would end up being a half a vote for, or a half a vote against Newt Gingrich, however you wanted to count it.
The Republican hope was that if they had somebody who was going to oppose the Speaker, that that would be a “present” vote, so it wouldn’t count as much against him, but that they could stop any hemorrhaging that would take place. And they had some moments of deep anxiety over the last couple of days, particularly when Jim Leach, not your average freshman members, say a chairman of the committee, somebody known as the keeper of the ethical keys around the House, announced that he was going to vote against the Speaker, and then required another massive effort, in effect, in the last 24 hours.
MARGARET WARNER: But did Leach make any effort to really bring people along with him in a defection, or did he just make this sort of statement of his own?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Leach made the statement, and he didn’t lobby other members. There was a feeling that that might cause a half dozen individuals who have been on the fence or a little panicky to move to the other side. But it didn’t work that way. And clearly the last opportunity to see a tremendous change take place occurred last night at 5 o’clock when Speaker Gingrich addressed his Republican colleagues. And then there was another meeting again this morning. If he had not done well at that session, it might have created a different atmosphere, but it didn’t.
MARGARET WARNER: And was his tone at this meeting, from what you know talking to members, the same as we heard today, or different?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It was very much from all accounts the same as what we heard today. It was not a terribly contrite or apologetic tone. There was a little bit of apology there today. But it was matter-of-fact. It certainly wasn’t if you don’t vote for me, I’ll make your lives miserable. Some other members suggested that Jim Leach perhaps should be stripped of his chairmanship, but the leadership, starting with the Speaker, said, no, no, we’re not going to be punitive in any fashion.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Norm, thanks very much.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thank you, Margaret.