Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) may pay a bigger political price than House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for shooting from the lip. Lott was forced to back down after he suggested on Mar. 6 that Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr should quickly wind up his probe of President Clinton. Three days later, amid a firestorm of Republican criticism, Lott reversed himself and said Clinton should stop "stonewalling."

Gingrich, meanwhile, was criticized by GOP tax-cutters for agreeing with Clinton that any budget surplus should be used to stabilize Social Security. He now says he's for big tax breaks and entitlement fixes.

Republican insiders tend to give Gingrich a break: They say he often makes provocative statements to stimulate debate. But GOP activists say Lott is eroding confidence in his leadership by frequent impolitic pronouncements. Even Gingrich says he doesn't understand what his pal Trent was thinking.

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