House Democrats are girding for a bruising battle over the ethics case of their speaker, Jim Wright of Texas, and acknowledging that the worst may be yet to come.
"We haven't hit bottom yet," said Rep. Charles Wilson, a fellow Texan who is among Wright's most battle-ready defenders. Wilson said he expects more damage to Wright when the House ethics committee releases its report Monday and formally charges the speaker with several dozen rules violations.But even before the charges were lodged, Wright was beginning his counteroffensive. In a carefully scripted and sometimes emotional speech on Thursday, he vehemently denied any intentional wrongdoing.
"I am confident that in the 34 years I've served in the Congress, I have not violated any of those basic rules nor any commonly accepted standard of ethical behavior," Wright told a packed room of reporters and television cameras.
With his top leadership lieutenants and many Texas colleagues at his side, Wright grew emotional as he defended his wife against a charge she did not do adequate work for the $18,000-a-year salary she was paid by a Fort Worth business partner.
"My wife is a good, decent, caring, thoroughly honorable person," he said, his voice choking. "I'll damned well fight to protect her honor and her integrity against any challenge by any source, whatever the cost."
The defense buoyed Democrats who already support the speaker, and many seemed prepared to fight.
"If you live in a glass house, you shouldn't throw rocks," said Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas. "Most of us in the House are prepared to eat a steady diet of glass for the next few weeks."
But others were dreading the battles to come and some expressed doubts whether the party could afford politically to maintain Wright as its most visible spokesman - particularly if the case leads to punishment.
"The ground would start to move under him if he were reprimanded," said Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont.
"The mood is bleak," Rep. Robert Mrazek, D-N.Y., told The New York Times. "There is recognition by virtually all of the people I would consider professional politicians that he will not survive."
The ethics committee, six Democrats and six Republicans, put the final touches on its report Thursday and scheduled a Monday news conference to release it. The report will include a statement of alleged violations enumerating several dozen specific violations of House rules, said sources familiar with the investigation.
Under the rules, the panel's standard for issuing such a citation - the equivalent of an indictment - is that it has found "reason to believe" the violations occurred. For the committee to prove those charges requires the more difficult standard of "clear and convincing" evidence.
Wright asked that he be allowed as soon as possible to go before the ethics panel and present his defense and begin offering rebuttal evidence.
Along with the concern over Wright's standing came worry that the ethics committee might be setting a new and more difficult standard for congressional behavior, particularly in calling a spouse's income a "gift" and in determining that the business partner who paid Mrs. Wright, George Mallick, had a direct interest in legislation before the Congress.