Blunt eyeing Senate leadership run

Reporter September 26, 2011

Don’t call it a comeback, because Roy Blunt never actually left Capitol Hill. But three years after he stepped down as House Republican whip, the freshman senator has nudged his way back into the spotlight.

Last week, Blunt (Mo.) announced his endorsement of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s presidential bid and was named head of Romney’s congressional team. Blunt has played a key, bridge-building role in advancing stalled trade agreements and securing funding for disaster aid. And he has dipped his toe back in the leadership waters, publicly mulling a campaign for vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

The increased activity befits a lawmaker who has spent nearly four decades in electoral politics, and is now growing comfortable in the Senate after a tenure in the House GOP leadership that ended uncomfortably.

Missouri is still recovering from the tornado that struck Joplin in May, and Blunt is in the middle of the current impasse over how much funding to give the Federal Emergency Management Agency and whether that funding should be offset.

Blunt was one of 10 Senate Republicans who joined with Democrats earlier this month to vote for spending $7 billion in emergency disaster relief over the next year, nearly double what the House has proposed to spend. FEMA is set to run out of money later this week, and the entire government could shut down Oct. 1 without a new spending agreement.

“I think it has to be resolved and will be resolved,” Blunt said in an interview Tuesday morning.

The Senate passed a temporary funding bill Tuesday night, 79-12, but Blunt voted against it, complaining that the measure would “delay the process” and “provides less emergency funding for Missourians.”

Blunt, a former history teacher who takes a Missourian’s pride in having the Senate office once occupied by Harry Truman, likes to place the present in the proper context. He called the current fight part of “this process we go through every 25 or 30 years where we have this disruptive debate about who we’re going to be, and then that’s who we are for a long time. That debate is a whole lot more important than anything going on in Washington right now.”

Blunt will play a bigger role in that debate if he decides to make a return to leadership. He lost a heated campaign for House majority leader in 2006 to Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), and then gave up the party whip job in 2008 to clear the way for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), his longtime deputy, to take the job.

Now he’s thinking that his House experience may help him in the Senate.

“Several members came to me and said, ‘You know, we don’t appear to understand the House very well as an institution. . . . We need to be able to get things done and you could add to that process,’ ” Blunt said.

Freshman Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.) has already jumped into the vice chairman’s race and has assembled several public endorsements. Blunt said Johnson, a businessman and tea party favorite, “brings a different set of skills to the leadership than I do” and that if both men run, members would have to decide which profile they preferred.

The vice chairman's slot will open because other senators are moving up in the wake of the decision by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to leave the leadership table in January and concentrate on legislating and building consensus.

“I fully understand Lamar’s view of this,” Blunt said. “There’s a lot to be said for just being able to be an independent operator and do what you want to do. This is the first time I’ve been able to do that in a long time.”

Along those lines, Blunt worked with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in recent months to round up Republican votes for Trade Adjustment Assistance, a compromise measure designed to smooth passage of free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The TAA bill is backed by Democrats but opposed by Republican leaders.

“In that case it was probably helpful not to be a chairman or in leadership,” Blunt said.

Inside or outside of leadership, Blunt hopes to be working with a President Romney by 2013, and that’s why he endorsed during a competitive presidential primary for only the second time in his career. The first time came during the 2000 campaign, when Blunt backed George W. Bush early and became Bush’s House liaison.

Blunt said he’s supporting Romney because he’s “best prepared” to handle the economy. “I also think he’s the most likely of our candidates out there to win the general election,” Blunt said.

Though Blunt lamented that the Senate has done very little that’s “meaningful” other than responding to crises, he’s still reserving judgment on his new home.

“All the advice I’ve gotten is, don’t evaluate the Senate for at least a year and if you can, for two years,” Blunt said, “because it’s fundamentally a different place than the House.”

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