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Republicans Officially Elect Gringrich Speaker of the House

By Thomas B. Rosenstiel
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

House Republicans officially anointed firebrand Rep. Newt Gingrich to be field commander of their conservative revolution Monday, but even at the moment of triumph the combative Georgian found himself entangled by his caustic commentary.

Even as House Republicans chanted "Newt, Newt, Newt" upon his election as House speaker, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and others were leveling a furious retort to Gingrich's suggestion Sunday that up to one-fourth of the White House staff had used drugs in the years before they joined the Clinton administration.

"The time has come when he has to understand that he has to stop behaving like an out-of-control radio talk-show host and begin behaving like the speaker of the House of Representatives," an angry Panetta told reporters invited into his office.

"We cannot do business with the speaker of the House who is going to engage in these kind of unfounded allegations," Panetta said. "He's got to abide by a higher standard here."

Gingrich has said on several occasions in recent weeks that as House speaker, he would have to temper his aggressive approach and assume a more statesmanlike role than the highly partisan one he played as leader of the minority opposition.

Yet despite his goal, Gingrich said Sunday that an unnamed senior law enforcement official had told him that "in his judgment, up to a quarter of the White House staff, when they first came in, had used drugs in the last four or five years."

The charge and the sharp White House response seemed to overwhelm any protestations of good will that the two parties had offered since the Nov. 8 elections. As such, they served as a reminder of the challenge Gingrich faces.

To accomplish many of their goals, Republican leaders need the support of congressional moderates on both sides of the aisle, and of the White House - which by exercising a presidential veto would force House Republicans to woo scores of Democrats for the votes needed to override.

The GOP leadership elections had a pep-rally quality, and an emotional Gingrich spoke for nearly an hour to more than 200 Republican colleagues in what some likened to a presidential inaugural or convention address, full of personal asides.

In addition to Gingrich, House Republicans elected another aggressive and occasionally vitriolic conservative, Rep. Richard Armey of Texas, to the No. 2 position, House majority leader.