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Santorum and Gingrich Share Complicated Past

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty
From left: Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich take part in a debate Monday.

The early Capitol Hill relationship between former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) has been described several ways: friendship, mentorship, rivalry — even frenemies.

"Newt recognized his talents early on," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a Gingrich supporter. "In fact, I remember one time he said to me that Santorum could well be president."

In the 2012 GOP presidential race, both candidates have attempted to paint their time in Congress to their political advantage. Santorum criticized the former Speaker as an establishment figure unwilling to push for change on Capitol Hill, while Gingrich claims he carried the reform banner there for years before the Pennsylvania lawmaker's first election.

Interviews with former GOP House Members reveal a symbiotic and shifting relationship during their eight overlapping years in Congress. From the House check-kiting scandal through welfare reform, neither Republican could boast about some of their key Congressional achievements without the other's assistance.

"I think Rick had a certain amount of respect with Gingrich," said John Brabender, Santorum's longtime political consultant. "At the same time, he had a certain amount of frustration with Gingrich."

When Santorum arrived in the House in 1991, Gingrich had recently become Minority Whip. The House GOP thirsted for power after almost four decades out of the majority, and Santorum quickly brought Gingrich a headline-grabbing opportunity for Republicans to point fingers at Democrats.

As part of the "gang of seven," Santorum pushed for disclosure after USA Today reported many Members regularly bounced checks at the House bank without penalty. The scandal became known as "Rubbergate."

The reform-minded group of freshmen picked up the House banking scandal over beers in the office of then-Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), "thinking we'd try to make a stink about it" in a few one-minute floor speeches, former Rep. Scott Klug (R-Wis.) recalled.

"Much to our collective astonishment, it took off like a rocket," Klug said.

At first, Gingrich supported the gang of seven mostly in private, former Members said.

After all, he had to work with the check-kiting GOP Members in his own caucus as their Whip — although House Democrats accounted for most of the guilty parties. What's more, Gingrich had 22 overdrafts in the House bank, including one for almost $10,000 to the IRS.

"It wasn't something the Republican leadership was eager to take on," said former Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), another gang of seven member. "I'm sure they knew more about the fallout than the seven of us."

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