The next question after the House ethics committee's recommendation of a stiff fine and a reprimand for Speaker Newt Gingrich - at least for those for whom the speaker is neither savior nor devil incarnate - is whether the level of punishment is enough to enable the House to function.
There were few immediate clues. The politicians who have flooded the fax machines with angry outbursts were silent, at least for now, perhaps reading the committee's report of more than 200 pages. The speaker himself, omnipresent two years ago, would not even pose for a photograph Saturday.Ethics committee members called the punishment, including a $300,000 fine, "reprimand plus." A reprimand is designated by the House for "serious offenses."
House Democrats had hoped for a "censure," which the opaque rule book says is for "more serious offenses." Not the least of their reasons for preferring censure was that Republican caucus rules imply that a censured member must resign any leadership office.
The Democrats' hopes were blunted, not merely by the bipartisan committee majority for "reprimand plus," but by the careful explanation of the special counsel, James Cole, that the committee had not proved that Gingrich violated tax laws or lied, although it was clear that Cole was convinced that the speaker had been guilty of both.
But the chatter of House Republican leaders of reducing the punishment to a mere "letter of reproval" was even more thoroughly exploded. Committee Republicans seemed plainly irritated by their colleagues' labeling the speaker's offenses as "jaywalking tickets" or "parking tickets." The $300,000 "cost assessment" silenced that bit of spin.
The likelihood that on Tuesday the House will vote this intermediate penalty does not necessarily mean that everyone will shake hands, smile and get to work balancing the budget.
Each side may be so frustrated by getting less than it wants that the warfare may continue.
That very result was hinted in an exchange between Reps. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, the committee chairman, and Nancy Pelosi of California, a Democrat who served on the investigative subcommittee.
Johnson told a news conference after the committee's 7-to-1 vote: "We hope that through our work we will help the House to get back on to a more bipartisan working team and focus on the issues that affect people's lives in our districts, the enormous challenges that face us as a nation. And that's why we think what we are doing tonight will in the long run be the payoff for people."
Pelosi said: "If I may, I just want to add to what our chairperson said. I think that it's important for us to bring this to an end and for us to move on to the other business before the Congress. But I don't want it to appear - and I know that you did not intend that, Madam Chair - I don't want it to appear that we have not been doing the people's business, because maintaining a high ethical standard is the people's business, and I know that you agree with that.
"So I think the step that we are taking tonight, and hopefully on the floor, in a dignified way to put this matter to rest and move on with the other work of the people, that I consider what we are doing very important people's work."
Pelosi, even though she plainly thought the speaker was guilty of more than the subcommittee could agree on, will not be among the Democrats eager to keep up the battle to get rid of him.
But some of her colleagues surely will try to find ways to force votes - well after Tuesday's decision on sanctions - that would require Republicans either to desert their leader or to set themselves up for 1998 election attacks as toadies to a sullied speaker.
Where will $300,000 penalty come from?
House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office said Saturday that no decision had been made on whether Gingrich would use campaign funds or his own savings to pay a $300,000 penalty for his admitted breaches of House rules.
Asked where the sum would come from, a Gingrich spokeswoman Lauren Maddox said: "That decision has not been made." But she referred to what she called a House ethics committee-approved precedent for using campaign funds to pay a fine.
She cited the 1994 ethics case against Rep. Martin Frost, a Texas Democrat. Frost was directed by the ethics committee to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for inappropriately using an official staff aide for activities in his district. "He did so, and that time he used campaign contributions for that purpose," she said.