WASHINGTON – Republicans turned on one another Wednesday after losing control of power in Congress – blaming an out-of-touch, self-promoting party leadership for abandoning ethics and conservative principles and turning off the country.

The first political casualty was House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who announced he’d step down from the party’s leadership.

More casualties were possible. At least one conservative movement leader demanded that Republicans in the House of Representatives delay electing leaders for the next Congress beyond the scheduled date of next Wednesday, presumably to allow time to reconsider the current slate.

Discontent could spread to the Senate, where Republicans lost a fifth seat Wednesday in Montana. There, Democrat Jon Tester defeated Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, who was tarred by his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

That put Democrats into at least a 50-50 tie with Republicans for Senate control.

That left Virginia, where Democrat James Webb led Republican Sen. George Allen by about 7,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast. Allen refused to concede, saying he’d wait to see final official results on Nov. 27 before deciding whether to seek a recount.

If Webb’s lead holds, Democrats will control the Senate. If Allen wins a recount, then Vice President Dick Cheney would break the tie to let Republicans control the Senate, though their grip on power would be much diminished compared with the past five years.

Regardless of the final outcome in the Senate, Republicans knew they lost power Tuesday, and their leading voices found plenty to blame in their party.

Veteran conservative strategist Richard A. Viguerie was especially caustic.

“Every single member of the Republican leadership in the House should be replaced. They have failed the conservatives who put them in office, and they have failed the people of this country,” Viguerie said.

“This election was also a referendum on the so-called “neoconservatives’ – the big-government Republicans who took us into a nation-building war while they busted the budget and enriched big business and its K Street lobbyists.”

“I feel liberated,” said conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, one of the party’s biggest cheerleaders. “I no longer am going to have to carry water for people who I don’t think deserve having their water carried.”

In one of the most stinging indictments, David Keene, the longtime president of the American Conservative Union – the nation’s oldest grass-roots conservative lobby, founded in 1964 – ripped Republicans for spending more taxpayer money than Democrats had and for weak ethics.

“We have watched Republicans elected by promising the highest standards in terms of integrity come to Washington to do good and stay to do well for themselves, their families and their friends, and demean the offices to which they were elected in the process,” Keene said.

“We have witnessed the hypocrisy of Republican leaders who came to Washington swearing an allegiance to upholding traditional values work to protect those among their number who have flaunted those values, morals and standards.

“We have stood by as Republicans have flaunted, twisted and ignored rules to achieve their own partisan, rather than principled, ends; leaders who have used earmarks to seduce reluctant members to vote for legislation they knew was wrong and kept votes open for hours while they and their White House allies bludgeoned their colleagues into line in support of such legislation,” Keene said.

Keene joined Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., in urging House Republicans to postpone their leadership elections until January. Cantor is a member of the existing House Republican leadership as chief deputy whip. Among the many Republicans mentioned as a possible challenger was Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., leader of a large bloc of both social and economic conservatives.

Others argued that voters were turned off by the climate in Congress, particularly by its partisanship and a sense that Republican leaders looked the other way at scandals, from Abramoff’s lobbying corruption to former Florida Rep. Mark Foley’s sexual harassment of teenage male aides.

Hastert presided over a partisan, one-party rule that shut Democrats out of negotiations. He wouldn’t even allow the House to vote on an issue unless it could pass solely with Republican votes.

Voters “believed that we came to Washington to change government and government changed us,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Voters also rebelled at the sense that the Republican Congress didn’t get anything done.

“There was a feeling of a do-nothing Congress,” Republican pollster Ed Goeas said.

He said voters wanted “bipartisan solutions rather than the partisan bickering we’ve seen” and that Republicans want the party “to make sure our leaders have public service as their highest calling, not personal enrichment.”

(McClatchy correspondent William Douglas contributed to this report.)

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ELECTION

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): ELECTION

AP-NY-11-08-06 1744EST

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