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Bartlett, Harris, hear Gingrich, Gramm

Sun colleague Jean Marbella reports:

The House Republicans' retreat in Baltimore got under way this morning with a breakfast discussion about the federal budget -- but with a side order of electoral politics on the table as well.

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Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and perhaps future candidate for president, spoke at the breakfast attended by some of the more than 200 members of the new House majority gathered here for their annual winter retreat. He said his presidential ambitions did not come up, officially.

"Not directly," Gingrich said with a smile. "By the end of February, I'll decide whether to have an exploratory committee."

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Caught in the main lobby after the breakfast as he was leaving town, Gingrich said the incoming GOP freshman class had some similarities with and some differences from the 1994 wave that he led, armed with their "Contract with America."

"They've arrived with a mission. They're very dedicated," he said. "They may be even more serious about studying and learning. They have a model of what works and what doesn't work."

One of those newly elected Republicans, Rep. Andy Harris, attended the breakfast, at which former Sen. Phil Gramm also spoke. He said he had been particularly interested in hearing the two speakers because of how they handled their own budget crisis during their terms.

"It was great hearing from the two people who were in charge the last time we brought the federal budget under control," Harris said.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Maryland's other House Republican, called Gingrich and Gramm "two of my favorite people." The ten-term congressman from Western Maryland said much of the discussion focused on the coming vote to raise the government's debt ceiling -- something he has never supported.

"I do not think the sky would fall if we lived within our means," he said.More speakers -- and more potential presidential candidates -- are on tap today. There will be three, actually, speaking at lunch, all governors: Rick Perry of Texas, Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Haley Barbour of Mississippi.

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