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U.S.: Speaker Likely To Survive Ethics Challenge As Congress Convenes

Washington, 3 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - The 105th U.S. Congress convenes next Tuesday, and Congressman Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) is expected to hold on to the top legislative leadership post despite questions about his ethics.

The 535 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate will meet in their chambers in the Capitol Rotunda to take their oaths of office and get down to the business of government.

However, the only real item on the agenda Tuesday is the election by the House members of their speaker. After the president of the United States, the Speaker of the House is probably the second most powerful politician in Washington. All legislation originates in the House, and it is the speaker who decides if and when legislative proposals will get a hearing.

Gingrich became the first speaker from the Republican Party in four decades when he was elected by the members two years ago after Republicans took majority control in the House and Senate from the Democrats, the party that President Bill Clinton belongs to.

No one has questioned the skill of Gingrich as speaker, but he is now confronted with charges that he violated the House's own code of conduct. Gingrich acknowledged just before the Christmas holiday that he broke House rules by failing to seek proper legal advice on use of tax-exempt contributions for possibly political purposes, and by providing inaccurate statements about the role of his political fund-raising organization in the tax-exempt projects.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the Gingrich case next week. However, that hearing will not be held until after Tuesday's vote for the speaker's post, and no decision will be taken until after the presidential inauguration on January 20.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the ethics sub-committee which conducted the investigation of the charges against Gingrich will recommend to the full committee that Gingrich be reprimanded. That may be embarrassing for Gingrich, but it is a punishment that would allow him to keep his job. A more serious punishment would be a recommendation for censure.

Both a censure and a reprimand involve a vote by the full House to criticize a member's conduct. However, the censure vote is supplemented by rules of both parties that force the censured member to step aside from a committee chairmanship or leadership post.

Politically, this means the only thing that could defeat Gingrich in next Tuesday's vote would be defections from his own party. Most members of the Republican majority in the House who have been questioned by the press have indicated that they see no reason to elect a different speaker.

The Congress will only be in session three days next week. It will reconvene the day after President Clinton's inauguration ceremonies. Despite the short work week, the Congress, especially the U.S. Senate, will be busy.

Senate leaders want to begin hearings on the nominees for posts in Clinton's second-term cabinet. The Senate must give its approval before cabinet secretaries (ministers) and directors of some government agencies take office. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is due to open hearings on the nomination of former United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright for secretary of state on Wednesday.

The Senate is expected to give quick approval to all but one of Clinton's choices. The exception is White House National Security Council director Anthony Lake, who has been nominated for the post of director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Some important senators have criticized Lake and have said they will not vote for his approval because he did not inform Congress of a White House policy decision that enabled Bosnian Muslims to obtain weapons from Iran for use in the Muslims' civil war against Bosnian Serbs.

Another foreign policy issue that is likely to be brought up early is the U.S. debt to the United Nations. President Clinton wants the Congress to provide the $1.8 billion Washington owes the U.N. for dues. The Congress is demanding that the U.N. first reform policies the Congress views as extravagant.