KWAME HOLMAN: House Speaker Newt Gingrich spent most of the congressional Easter recess as far away from Washington as possible. He traveled to China to, in his words, develop a closer and better relationship, to share ideas, and to listen, as well as talk, to Chinese leaders. Gingrich also made stops in Japan and visited the tension-filled 38th Parallel separating the two Koreas. All in all the Speaker may have found the reception warmer than the one he's been getting at home recently. Just before the Easter recess Gingrich made an unusual appearance on the floor of the House, sporting a new haircut and noticeable weight loss. He spoke for an hour, delivering what amounted to a rallying call for House Republicans.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: We're going to have more successes over the next 18 months, and so I just think starting this weekend, members have a chance to in their district work period, to really carry out a message of opportunity, a message of hope, and a message of working together as a team on a principled bipartisanship that gets good things done for America. And that's my message for the Easter break that is coming up.
KWAME HOLMAN: But then on the night before the House recessed for Easter, 11 conservative Republicans broke ranks with the party. They temporarily blocked an increase in funding for House committees to clearly embarrass the Speaker. Differences with the dissidents were worked out during a testy three-hour meeting, but the incident was just the latest in what's been a difficult three months for Newt Gingrich.
REP. GERALD SOLOMON, (R) New York: The Chair will now accept nomination for the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gingrich survived his highly publicized and politically charged ethics trouble at the beginning of the year when House Republicans re-elected him as their leader.
REP. GERALD SOLOMON: Without objection, in the opinion of the Chair, the ayes have it. Mr. Gingrich is elected Republican candidate for Speaker of the House.
KWAME HOLMAN: But ever since Gingrich has been feeling the heat, not just from his adversaries but from members of his own party as well, and on Capitol Hill, the Washington media sensed there might be a big story ready to unfold.
To begin with, Gingrich has yet to deal with the matter of the $300,000 penalty he must pay as a result of his admitted ethics violations. Reportedly, Gingrich's wife, Marianne, who handles the family finances, does not want her husband to pay the penalty out of his pocket. She would prefer he dip into his campaign contributions, which is legal but could be very costly to Gingrich politically.
Beyond that is the broad charge by Gingrich's critics that the 105th Congress is a ship without a captain. After the ethics uproar the Speaker did lower his public profile, limiting appearances and delegating responsibilities to his lieutenant. That's easier to do with no Contract with America to promote during this Congress, but some complain there's no focused agenda at all. House Majority Leader Dick Armey and others in the Republican leadership have been left to defend Gingrich.
REPORTER: Mr. Armey, in light of a somewhat low profile in the beginning of this session, who's running the House, you or the Speaker.
REP. DICK ARMEY, Majority Leader: The Speaker is running the House. The Speaker is the Speaker, and he has the respect and the admiration and support of the majority and many people in the minority.
KWAME HOLMAN: In mid March, the Speaker attempted to emerge from the shadows but again found himself embroiled in a controversy. He suggested tax cuts once described as the crown jewel of the Republican agenda should be deferred until a balanced budget plan is in place. That angered fellow Republicans, and Gingrich was forced to explain himself during a photo opportunity with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: My preference would be to have the President be responsible, provide us an honest balanced budget now, as he promised on February 4th, work out entire budget reconciliation in the next thirty to forty days that would allow us a budget resolution that would allow us to have a balanced budget, the right reforms for the American people, and tax cuts. That's my preference. I was asked a very different question this afternoon, which is, in the absence of the President offering leadership, what is one of the ways we could get this done?
KWAME HOLMAN: Recent articles in national publications with headlines like "GOP in Disarray," "Newt Melts," and "Newt Must Go," are a far cry from the days when the Speaker's face graced the cover of Time Magazine as its Man of the Year. A few House Republicans have called publicly for Gingrich to step aside as Speaker. One colleague, Peter King of New York, even referred to him as "political road kill."
REP. PETER KING, (R) New York: (Sunday - Face the Nation) I think there's probably close to a majority who feel that the party is going in the wrong direction, and we have not gotten strong leadership. The extent or the intensity of their feelings, of course, would vary from individual to individual, but there's a large, large number.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, this group of Republicans still considers Newt Gingrich the conquering hero who led their party to its historic House majority in 1994. Last night members of GOPAC, the conservative political action committee Gingrich once headed, held their spring banquet in Washington. And for 50 minutes the Speaker sounded very much like the old Newt Gingrich, speaking forcefully and commanding everyone's attention.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: A high growth economy, creating many new jobs, with the highest possible take home pay is created by having less regulation, less litigation, and less taxation, so you have a smaller government and a bigger private sector, so more people are at work creating wealth than are at work redistributing wealth. It's a very straightforward model. (applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: Gingrich urged the IRS be downsized by 60 percent and challenged labor unions to defend their role in last fall's political campaign. He also ticked off a litany of questionable fund-raising practices by the Clinton administration and criticized Attorney General Janet Reno for not immediately alerting the President that the Chinese government might be trying to influence American elections.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: We do not know why she failed to persist in her efforts to inform the White House about a clear threat to our very system. The failure to communicate was a dereliction of duty. The failure to clear up what has happened is inexcusable.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gingrich also responded to his own critics.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: It does not occur to me that a few months of planning is a cause for panic. The fact is last November we became the first Republican majority re-elected in 68 years. And so I look forward to 1998, when by historical standards I think we should win somewhere between 40 and 60 seats. I look forward to the opportunity in the year 2000 to have a second contract, and I believe that we're on the way.
KWAME HOLMAN: Newt Gingrich made it clear he fully expects to be Speaker of the House for years to come. Members of GOPAC, no doubt, agree. The question now is: How many House Republicans need to be convinced.