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Newt Gingrich: Julius Speaker?

Uh-oh, Newt Gingrich is in trouble again, and guess which "friend" has that lean and hungry look

By Karen Tumulty/Washington

TIME magazine

(TIME, June 30) -- In the days when he bestrode Washington like a colossus, Newt Gingrich found inspiration in great military leaders of old, from Ataturk to Wellington. Last week, as Gingrich faced one of the lowest points of his rocky speakership, history offered a more cautionary lesson. It was that of a Roman general who became master of the empire, only to find that his own inner circle posed a greater threat than any enemy he had met on the battlefield. Last Tuesday evening, when a handful of conspirators met in the Capitol to plot against their Speaker, Gingrich could not help noticing where they had gathered--in a secluded suite of rooms one floor above his, the offices that belong to majority leader Dick Armey.

Et tu, Dick?

Gingrich's current difficulties, while less acute than the ethics investigation that threatened his speakership last winter, are in many ways more intractable, largely because the criticism is coming from within. Republicans say he lacks direction, negotiating skills and--for the first time in his political career--a clear message that can inspire the faithful. Having come to power preaching revolution, he now presides over an incrementalist institution, holding a paper-thin majority against a popular Democratic President.

The Speaker, in an interview, dismissed questions about his political survival as a "media frenzy" over a "road bump," in this case, the recriminations that followed the G.O.P.'s bungling of a disaster-aid bill. It is true that he appears in little immediate danger: the consequences of unseating the party's leader seem vastly worse than the damage Gingrich has done, and, more important, Republicans have no obvious replacement. But both his allies and his enemies say this summer's struggle over shaping the tax bill, the initial versions of which both houses expect to pass with much fanfare this week, may determine whether Gingrich survives the year. "If he blows it," says an influential G.O.P. strategist close to the leadership, "it is his last shot. He will lose his speakership."

Armey, having grumbled privately that he was shut out of a budget deal that abandoned conservative principles, took his complaints public and announced that he would not be bound by the agreement. When Armey was asked Tuesday whether he regards Gingrich as an effective leader, the Speaker's top lieutenant made for the exit, telling reporters; "Y'all have a good day now." In subsequent statements, Gingrich and Armey downplayed reports of a rift as misconstrued, but Republican sources say the relationship has become badly and possibly irreparably frayed.

That same evening--the Speaker's 54th birthday, as it happened--about 35 Republicans, largely drawn from the Gingrich- inspired Class of '94, met in Armey's suite, ostensibly to talk about upcoming legislation. But their session opened instead with outbursts against Gingrich, some even asserting that it was time to dump him. For the first time, a participant recalled, Gingrich's fellow Republicans were saying they no longer could trust him.

More telling may have been a quieter gathering a week before between some of the same members and Armey. The Congressmen were complaining that their rebelliousness had put them under threat of retribution by Appropriations Committee chairman Bill Livingston. The rebels, however, were stunned when the majority leader suggested they take out their frustrations by defeating a series of upcoming spending bills. "He told us that Newt had to be brought in line, and that this would empower [Armey]," one said. The majority leader says he does not recall making such comments at the meeting, which were first reported by the newspaper the Hill, but several participants confirmed he had issued, in effect, an invitation to stage a rebellion on the House floor--making it clear that one of his goals was to enhance his own power.

Gingrich could regain stature from the enactment of a tax bill that preserves basic conservative priorities, cutting taxes for families with children and offering capital-gains reductions for, among others, retirees getting ready to cash in a lifetime of investments. His most ardent allies hope he will lead the fight, daring Clinton to veto a bill that contains proposals like those. "We're now leading with our strength," says conservative activist and Gingrich adviser Grover Norquist. "Tax cuts are the killing fields for the Democrats." But others note that too confrontational an approach is what got the Republicans in trouble before. And this time it could leave them vulnerable on other arguments about their tax package. While in the early going the tax-cut plan gives three-fourths of its benefits to those earning less than $75,000, Treasury Department figures (disputed by Republicans) indicate the equation roughly reverses itself after five years. With the working poor largely cut out of the plan's benefits, minority leader Dick Gephardt contends the whole debate is merely a "brawl at the country club."

Maybe so, but for Republicans the stakes could hardly seem higher. South Carolina's Lindsey Graham found a historical military metaphor of his own to describe the coming battle over tax cuts: "It will either be our Waterloo, or it will be the end of the Democratic Congress for the rest of our lifetime." For Gingrich, the warning may just be, Beware the tithes of July.

--With reporting by Tamala M. Edwards/Washington

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