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House GOP Absorbs Lessons of 'Black Tuesday'

Conservative agenda may stall in Congress after Republicans' meager election win.

It's a sharp contrast. Four years ago, Republicans' post-election mood was ebullient as they swept into power under the Contract With America banner.

Yesterday, GOP leaders came face to face with the grim likelihood of a weakened House leadership, a possible internal power struggle, and an immobilized conservative agenda in Congress.

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Their jarring setback in Tuesday's midterm election will almost certainly force the GOP to rethink its legislative strategy and leadership - a reassessment sure to reshape the legislative agenda and, most crucially, the outcome of the presidential impeachment inquiry.

The GOP is poised for a debate "with real critical self-analysis," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, adding that Republicans "will be looking to blame people" for the election upset.

The unexpectedly meager victory for the GOP may also mean that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia must brace for an inner-party power struggle, as House Republicans decide over the next few weeks whether to retain him as Speaker.

"There's only been one team which has won control, kept control, and then won a third election in 70 years," said a terse Mr. Gingrich, speaking yesterday in Marietta, Ga., from a podium with the bold message "America's Victory" emblazoned over the huge word "NEWT."

GOP officials deny that the vote threatened to unseat party leaders Gingrich or Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. "[The speakership] is not in jeopardy," Republican National Committee Chairman James Nicholson said Wednesday at a Monitor breakfast meeting.

Still, Gingrich accepted responsibility for surprise Republican defeats that reduced the GOP's margin in the 435-member House of Representatives by at least five seats to about 223 to 211. It was the first time since 1934 that a president's party had not lost House seats in a midterm election.

"We may not be doing everything right," Gingrich said.

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Responding to fears that the GOP handling of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal had stirred a voter backlash, Gingrich acknowledged he had "totally underestimated" how weary the public was of the subject.

Although House Republicans still have the votes needed to impeach the president - and Gingrich indicated the process should go forward - their enthusiasm may be dampened by the public's desire to drop the issue.

Shifting the focus to the GOP agenda, Gingrich stressed that Republicans made a mistake by not advertising more aggressively their plan to use the budget surplus both to tax cuts and save Social Security. "We need to push a much stronger message," he said. Tax cuts will top the Republican agenda in coming months, Republican leaders made clear.

Nevertheless, Republicans now face greater hurdles in pursuing their legislative goals - both from a White House newly empowered by the strong Democratic election showing and from the GOP's own divided ranks.

On one hand, a major debate on Social Security and tax cuts is expected to shape up in coming months as both parties prepare for a White House conference on Social Security in December. Gingrich indicated that both parties should make efforts to "transcend partisanship," stating that "when we and the president agree, we should cooperate."

Meanwhile, Republicans will have to try to legislate despite an even smaller margin in the House. "The Republicans will have the smallest margin in this century, and that very, very tight margin will change the dynamics of the House," says Mark Miller, a professor of government at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

As a result, the balance of power in the House may shift in favor of more moderate lawmakers, aligning the party more closely with the electorate as the 2000 election approaches.

"[The smaller GOP margin] gives the moderate wing of the Republican Party enormous power because if they vote as a group the Republicans could lose on the floor," says Mr. Miller.

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