Why did Jim Leach put his congressional career on the line last week by opposing Newt Gingrich's reelection as speaker of the House?

While Washington insiders were spinning theories last week, people who know the Iowa Republican said the answer is simple: Jim Leach is a man of principle, and he just did what he thought was right. He wasn't angling for anything.

"He is probably the most black-and-white individual I have ever met," said one trade association executive. "I just think he believes he has to do what he thinks is right even if it doesn't make a lot of sense."

Rep. Leach led the House Banking Committee in much the same way over the last two years: He did what he thought was right with little regard to what was possible.

While his integrity may be admirable, Rep. Leach is guilty of grandstanding. And it is this flair for the dramatic that may cause him problems this year, lobbyists predicted.

Rather than quietly voting against Speaker Gingrich Tuesday, Rep. Leach released a three-page, single-spaced statement last Monday afternoon explaining his opposition.

"The occupant of this position," Rep. Leach said of the speaker, "must be free of any shadow concerning allegiance to the law or to the truth."

The statement was vintage Leach. "The troubling question that must be addressed is the question of loyalty and whether it should be expressed for a principal leader or for the principles of leadership as the two become discordant."

Speaker Gingrich, who has been under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for two years, admitted in December that he did not ask his lawyers whether financing a course he taught with tax-free contributions violated tax laws.

"A defense which rests on the claim that he failed to seek sufficient legal advice ... is simply inadequate for a maker of laws," Rep. Leach said.

Though the split made the front page of the country's major newspapers, Rep. Gingrich was reelected speaker on Tuesday. Rep. Leach garnered two votes for speaker and cast his ballot for retired Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois.

When Rep. Leach announced his choice, House Democrats erupted in applause - not exactly the allies you're looking for as a member of the House GOP leadership.

But Rep. Leach isn't much worried.

"I realized there was risk that could be to me personally, but it's unlikely the angst of leadership will be taken out in legislative form," he said Friday.

That remains to be seen.

It's not a certainty that Rep. Leach will retain his chairmanship.

Though his position was approved by the House last week, Republican leaders could strip him of the title and nominate a new chairman.

While most sources doubt the leadership will be so openly vindictive, they noted that his bill to reform financial laws - introduced Tuesday - was referred to the House Commerce Committee. Chances of enactment are much slimmer when both the Banking and Commerce committees are heavily involved.

In the last Congress, Speaker Gingrich gave Rep. Leach a rare show of support by ordering Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley not to "encroach" on the Banking Committee efforts. Rep. Leach is unlikely to receive such favors this year.

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