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Why Gingrich's Gloves Are Off

Exasperation - and politics - are behind Speaker's broadsides against White House.

Obstruction. Stonewalling. Coverup.

Using harsh words like these, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) last week dramatically changed his tone - and his tactics - in breaking a long silence on the allegations that have swirled around President Clinton all year.

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The Speaker's broadsides, aimed directly at the White House and congressional Democrats, come after weeks of jousting between the president's staff and the office of independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

To Mr. Gingrich's defenders, his sudden offensive is a result of a growing exasperation, shared by many Republicans, over what they see as efforts to block legitimate investigations of possible presidential misconduct. But to others, including some fellow Republicans, Gingrich's shift is more about politics than justice.

In a series of speeches and comments, Gingrich decried White House attacks on Mr. Starr and Democrats' refusal to cooperate with a House committee investigating campaign-finance irregularities in the 1996 election.

"What you have lived through for 2-1/2 long years is the most systematic, deliberate obstruction-of-justice coverup and effort to avoid the truth we have ever seen," Gingrich said.

It's not clear whether Gingrich's strategy is making it harder for the GOP Congress to work with the White House on tough issues such as the tobacco bill.

"These things are going to be hard to do in any event," says a House Republican who asked not to be named. "It depends on whether he persists in his rhetoric."

Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster and frequent adviser to Gingrich, says the Speaker has made his agenda clear and is working hard to get legislation passed. She adds, however, "I would not want the Speaker to continue to be hard-edged."

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Gingrich says he spoke out after Democrats on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee refused to approve immunity from prosecution for four witnesses, even after the Justice Department said it did not object.

Republicans believe Democrats and White House lawyers have worked to frustrate the committee's investigation of 1996 campaign-finances abuses, as well as Starr's work. Democrats reply that the committee, chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, is running a partisan and unfair inquiry. Gingrich threatens to move the inquiry to a committee where Republicans have a large enough majority to act without any Democratic votes.

"The Speaker has discussed two principles, and he has reiterated them in every speech," a Gingrich aide says. "They are, first, that the American people have the right to know the truth, especially when a crime may have been committed, and second, that no person, be it pauper or president, is above the law."

Democrats see it differently.

"[Republican leaders] are following the advice given by many of their Republican consultants," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota. "The American people understand it for what it is - political rhetoric at its worst."

Even Republicans disagree over what the Speaker is up to. "The Speaker is well within the bounds of his responsibilities to demand accountability from the White House," says Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, who sat on the House ethics committee that judged Gingrich last year.

But the unnamed House Republican has a more political explanation: "It's about two things," he says. "One, he's trying to stir up the [Republican] base. Second, it's about some polling data he received that indicated to him that now is a good time to start criticizing the president."

That's not the way the Speaker operates, says Ms. DiVall. "He is not guided by polling data," she says. "Too often he just rushes out to do what he thinks [is right]." While acknowledging that Republican voters will be galvanized by Gingrich's statements, DiVall says, "At this point there's really no evidence that we're having problems with our base."

"[Gingrich] fundamentally feels that what's happening today in terms of President Clinton's actions - and this is not about sex, this is about potential obstruction [of justice], perjury, intimidation of witnesses - are charges that need to be understood and heard by the American public," she adds.

House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri wants Gingrich to recuse himself from matters related to Starr's investigation. "My concern is that he seems to be taking the position of judge and jury," Mr. Gephardt says. "He is deciding these issues before he is even presented with the facts, and I think that disqualifies him from being able to carry out these duties as Speaker of the House."

The rise in election-year tensions, however, isn't preventing White House and Republicans from cooperating when both see it in their interest - yet.

The president took the high road in last Thursday's press conference: "I don't think a few days of high-level static in the House of Representatives, which may have more to do with their affairs than with the rest of us..., should make us believe that the era of bipartisan government is over," Mr. Clinton said.

The week ended on two cooperative notes: The Senate ratified NATO expansion, handing Clinton a foreign-policy victory. In addition, after negotiations with the White House, the House and Senate agreed on a spending bill for disaster relief and military deployments, which the president indicated he would sign.

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