KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday, just moments after Newt Gingrich was re-elected Speaker of the House, several members of the House Ethics Committee finally broke months of silence about the Gingrich case.
REP. BEN CARDIN, (D) Maryland: We are disappointed by one provision in the rule package that puts a limit on the remaining time in which we can work which is unrealistic. The special counsel has told us that that limit could very much impact the manner in which we carry out our work and prevent us from continuing in a professional bipartisan manner.
KWAME HOLMAN: Just before Christmas Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin and three other members of a House Ethics Subcommittee wrapped up their closed-door investigation of Newt Gingrich, determining the Speaker had improperly used tax-free contributions to support a college course he taught. However, the Ethics Committee's special counsel, James Cole, still has to finish his final report to the full 10-member committee, present the findings in open public hearings, and recommend sanctions against the Speaker. Both Cole and the four members of the Ethics Subcommittee said it would take several more weeks to do all of that. But on Tuesday House Republican leaders said the full House would go ahead with a vote on sanctions against Gingrich on January 21st, a date originally agreed to by the full Ethics Committee.
REP. DICK ARMEY, Majority Leader: I have not set dates arbitrarily. I have no agenda here, except an orderly, respectful addressing of the needs of all the members of the House within the context of what I believe to be a conclusion that any reasonable person would have made about the competent ability of professionals, thus respected, to have suggested properly and with some degree a fullness in accuracy what they thought were their time needs.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Jim McDermott, the ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee was outraged.
REP. JIM McDERMOTT, (D) Washington: With all due respect to the Majority Leader, sometimes things change. If you can't respond to things changing, it seems to me you're terribly rigid in setting a date. Now for you not to respond to that in a positive way seems to me to suggest you got some other agenda. I don't know what it is, but clearly it is not in preserving the orderly process of the Ethics Committee.
KWAME HOLMAN: Even Republican Nancy Johnson, the chairman of the full Ethics Committee, sounded somewhat concerned.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON, Chair, Ethics Committee: We are going to be able to give the subcommittee and the special counsel time--the time they request before the hearings. It does leave us a little pressed in terms of writing the report.
KWAME HOLMAN: Members of the full committee regrouped on Wednesday and for 14 hours haggled over the schedule. Early Thursday morning they announced their agreement. Open televised hearings on the ethics case against Newt Gingrich would begin on Monday, January 13th, and last perhaps through the week. The full House would vote on the recommended sanctions against Gingrich on the following Tuesday, January 21st. Special counsel Cole then would have until February 4th to file his final report two weeks after the House vote. But that agreed-to schedule began to unravel yesterday afternoon when the Ethics Committee's Democrats again went public with their concerns.
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: The Democrats on the Ethics Committee wish to make clear that we do not support the decision by the Republican leadership to schedule a vote regarding penalties on January 21st well before that final report is made available to the members. By proceeding with a vote on January 21st, the Republican leadership is making an unreasonable request that members make their judgments on raw materials and transcripts that cover two years of effort and thousands of pages of documents submitted by the committee and the special counsel in this case.
KWAME HOLMAN: Now it was the Republicans' turn to go public. Ethics chairman Nancy Johnson called a news conference last night.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: Today at their press conference the Democrats said this schedule was wrong; that the final report of the committee was more important than the public hearings. Therefore, we are reversing the order of the schedule.
KWAME HOLMAN: Johnson told special counsel James Cole to complete his final report on Gingrich by January 16th. The public hearings would be postponed until after Cole submitted his report, but the January 21st vote in the House on sanctions against Gingrich would hold firm.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: By allowing the process that we adopted last night we would have achieved all of our goals of information for members, information for the public, and the right for the counsel to do the kinds of things that he wanted to do in terms of formal integration. Unfortunately, the Democrats have decided that they would prefer a different process. Now I say this is doable. We will do it by the 16th. I can instruct the counsel to concentrate on that, rather than its presentation, and thereafter we will hold a public hearing; we will get the information to members. It is going to work out as planned--not my first choice, but a good second choice.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans and Democrats on the Ethics Committee may meet again on Sunday but the Democrats may have lost the political advantage. A full week's worth of televised hearings critical of Speaker Newt Gingrich ultimately could be compressed to just one day.