Worries about ethics

Robert Novak
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Posted: Dec 03, 2005 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON -- Worried Republican leaders from both the House and Senate cleared out staffers Wednesday for the first night of their three-day retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to discuss their anxiety about the question of ethics.

 Over dinner at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Md., the GOP leaders were reported to have discussed the repercussions of the scandal revolving around the federal investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. They were said to have discussed how many of their colleagues might find themselves linked to Abramoff, as has Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, the "mayor" of Capitol Hill as chairman of the House Administration Committee.

 The dinner took place two days after the Hill was shocked when Rep. Duke Cunningham of California pleaded guilty to receiving $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. However, Republicans feel the likelihood is greater of exposing more Neys, challenged by ethical questions, than of more Cunninghams, committing overtly criminal behavior.

NEWT FOR PRESIDENT

 Newt Gingrich, who was forced to resign as speaker of the House seven years ago, is serious about seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

 Critics of Gingrich have suggested that he encourages the presidential talk mainly to boost book sales and promote lecture fees. In fact, however, as he travels the country, Gingrich privately makes personal pitches in seeking supporters for a presidential candidacy.

 Thus far, there is no sign of any success by Gingrich in signing up former colleagues whom he has approached. He has generated more support from former staffers, who are ready to work on his '08 campaign.

CHALLENGING JEAN

 Newly elected Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, excoriated by Democrats for intimating that Rep. John Murtha is a coward, faces a possible Republican primary challenge next year from former Rep. Bob McEwen.

 Piercing the usual veil of anonymity for freshman House members, Schmidt was battered by Democrats for suggesting that decorated wounded war veteran Murtha was a coward because he proposed withdrawal from Iraq. Republican colleagues were furious with her for making the well-liked Murtha the issue instead of the war.

 Former State Rep. Schmidt won the nomination last June 14 with 31 percent of the vote in the 11-candidate field, trailed by McEwen's 25 percent. In the Aug. 2 special election, she nearly lost the heavily Republican Cincinnati-area district.

ALITO'S GUIDE

 Steve Schmidt, counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, is getting high grades as the low-profile sherpa guiding Judge Samuel Alito toward confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.

 Schmidt replaced former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie. After serving as sherpa for Chief Justice John Roberts and later for the aborted nomination of Harriet Miers, Gillespie wanted to return to his Washington lobbying firm. Former Sen. Dan Coats was brought in to help Miers and has stayed for Alito, while Gillespie is providing part-time assistance for Alito. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, who helped out with Roberts, is out of the sherpa business because of acting commitments.

 A footnote: An indicator pointing to possible success for Alito was a favorable reaction by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson after meeting with Alito. Nelson faces re-election next year in Nebraska, which was carried two-to-one by President Bush last year.

RISING MODERATES

 The Main Street Partnership, the leading moderate Republican organization tilting the balance of power in the House, is expanding its staff and looking for larger quarters in Washington.

 Sallie Mae analyst Jonathan Stevens has been hired by Main Street, and he plans to take on two additional staffers to work with him. The organization is also looking at expanded office space in the Firemen's Insurance Co. building in the high-rent downtown district just off Pennsylvania Ave.

 Main Street, headed by Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware, has recently blocked passage of oil drilling in ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and extension of investment tax cuts.