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GOP in danger of losing control of Congress, Gingrich says

WASHINGTON—A dozen years after he engineered his party's takeover of Congress, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned Friday that his fellow Republicans could be swept out of power themselves.

"They are seen by the country as being in charge of a government that can't function," he told Knight Ridder editors and reporters in a wide-ranging luncheon interview. "We could lose control this fall."

He cited a series of blunders under Republican rule, from failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to mismanagement of the war in Iraq. He said the immigration bill passed by his former colleagues in the House of Representatives is unrealistic and too harsh toward undocumented immigrants, called congressional efforts to regulate lobbying "much too weak" and said the government has squandered billions of dollars in Iraq.

Long known as a provocateur, Gingrich said he was leveling his pointed criticisms to try to shake up his party. "I'm trying to get the government and my party to change this year," he said.

Gingrich said Republicans might retain control of Congress this fall if they and President Bush produce a burst of accomplishments and popular reforms in the next few months—a prospect few analysts consider likely.

Gingrich said Republicans have grown too comfortable in power and lost the grassroots, outside-the-Beltway attitude that once fed their hunger to downsize the government.

"We reached our peak in August of `97 when we passed the balanced budget" law, he said. "That was the moment when we had in fact changed the city as much as we were going to do in that way."

After that, he said, the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994 cooled for two reasons.

First, he said, the next generation of Republicans in Congress didn't understand the broad goals. "People reverted to being normal incumbents," he said. Then, the party never generated a "second wave" of grassroots pressure for change in Washington.

The result, he said, is a government that doesn't work well.

"The Republicans in large part are right on policy and wrong on implementation. If you're wrong on implementation long enough when you're in charge, they fire you," he said.

Gingrich briefly dominated Washington after he led his party behind a reform agenda to take control of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. As speaker, he battled President Clinton, sparked a budget fight that shut down the government twice and led the impeachment of Clinton for lying under oath to conceal an affair.

Under fire for unexpected GOP losses in 1998 midterm elections, Gingrich stepped down as speaker and retired from Congress. Now he's testing the waters for a possible presidential run in 2008.

Gingrich dismissed two of the main arguments that many Republicans raise today against the prospect that they might lose Congress.

The first defense, he said, is that Republicans just have to point out that the other party is worse. "This is the 2004 campaign," he said. "We proved the anti-Kerry vote's bigger than the anti-Bush vote, which in the long run gives you no capital to spend."

The second, he noted, is that Republicans will campaign on local issues district by district and thus avoid any national tide of anger.

"That doesn't last very long in a country that has a national media system," he said. "The country talks to itself. The country wants real change."

He said neither Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney has managed to mobilize the country behind what's at stake in the Iraq war. "They start to own the failure," he said.

He noted that a congressional watchdog agency recently smuggled a truck carrying nuclear material into the country to test security. "Why isn't the president pounding on the table? Why isn't he sending up 16 reform bills?" Gingrich asked.

As for his plans, Gingrich sidestepped a question about whether he'll run for president. But he noted with a grin that he plans repeated trips this year to Iowa and New Hampshire—the two states that vote first in 2008's nomination contests.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): GINGRICH

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