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Countdown to Indictment

Despite his re-election as speaker, despite his attempt to replace some Ethics Committee members, despite being kept in the background during the election, Newt Gingrich now finds that his unethical maneuvering is slowly catching up to him.

It wasn't until after the election that an internal GOP skirmish erupted into a public battle. For the first time, signs of Newt Gingrich's unpopularity with socially moderate Republican representatives spilled out of the House chambers and into the newspapers. Newt also faced opposition from some fellow conservatives. Eager to attack the president over Whitewater and Indogate, they felt the House Ethics Committee's charges against the speaker might derail their own assault on Clinton (Newt would be "bled to political death by Democrats using ethics charges as leeches," the National Review complained). Both factions suggested Newt step down as speaker until the ethics investigation concluded.

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The first round went to Newt. He stifled his GOP critics, was re-elected speaker, and then got his deputy, Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), to try to reconstitute the very committee that's investigating him. To understand why, you need look no further than its chairwoman, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), a moderate Republican and Gingrich ally. Mother Jones first exposed Johnson's stonewalling of the investigation -- a charge later picked up by the New York Times, among others. Eventually, under intense public pressure, Johnson appointed a special counsel, James Cole. After winning re-election by just 1,600 votes, Johnson admitted the criticism she took for her handling of the Gingrich case nearly cost her her seat, and she now wants off the committee. But while she's still on it, she probably won't do anything that could be interpreted as going easy on the speaker.

Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) has been ambivalent about pursuing Newt from the start. One reason may have been the GOP's threat of a retaliatory ethics investigation into the Democratic leader. Fundamentally, though, Gephardt is a consummate deal maker. When Newt let Democrats have another seat on both the Appropriations and Commerce committees, it could have been construed as part of a compromise offer.

As we go to press, the ethics investigation is still unresolved. But even if the jury is rigged, and the committee takes only a narrow look at Cole's yearlong probe, the evidence is powerful.

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