By Jim VandeHei and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 30, 2005
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert told Rep. Tom DeLay yesterday that DeLay will keep a prominent leadership role even after his indictment, a pledge that came as the powerful Texan's departure as majority leader touched off a scramble by other Republicans hoping to gain influence from his absence.
The new majority leader, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), moved into his new Capitol suite, consigning DeLay to smaller quarters for rank-and-file members across the street at the Cannon Office Building. But Hastert, at an early-morning meeting, assured DeLay that his reduced status will not mean sharply reduced influence in running the caucus and setting the party's course for the 2006 elections, Republicans familiar with the session said.
As DeLay fights charges that he was involved in a fundraising conspiracy, Hastert told him that he will remain among the speaker's closest advisers. Significantly, DeLay's large staff will remain on the majority leader's payroll -- working for Blunt, but also in position to keep watch on him. DeLay will no longer attend leadership meetings.
With DeLay's future uncertain, several GOP lawmakers signaled their eagerness to move into leadership posts. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) was the first to raise his hand, vowing to run for majority whip, the number three leadership post, and to challenge Rep. Eric I. Cantor (Va.), who is assisting with the job on an interim basis. Other possible candidates include Reps. John A. Boehner (Ohio), Mike Pence (Ind.) and Mike Rogers (Mich.), lawmakers said.
Blunt, a former DeLay protege who has told colleagues he wants to be speaker one day, emerged as the winner in this week's shake-up -- at least so far. But there were clear indications that he is rubbing some of his colleagues the wrong way.
Several lawmakers, who said they could speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity, said the 55-year-old former teacher has a reputation for being too overtly ambitious, and must work hard to win over skeptical colleagues. "He's the kind of guy always looking over your shoulder when you are talking to him," looking for something better, a top House Republican leader said.
With competing ambitions, Hastert "is very aware of the tensions developing that he is going to have to deal with," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "Folks are looking to see if they can get into leadership."
Around Capitol Hill yesterday, most Republicans spent the day appealing to their colleagues for unity to hold the party together through one of the most difficult periods of its decade-long reign.
"Members know this is a very difficult moment -- if we don't hang together we fall apart," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
To stave off leadership races that would expose political and philosophical fissures inside the party, Hastert has persuaded members to buy into his short-term plan to allow Blunt take over DeLay's job by acclamation, in case the Texas Republican can return. Blunt also retains his position as majority whip.
But short-term harmony came at a price. In private conversations with GOP lawmakers, he promised to revisit the new leadership structure in January, and to allow new leadership elections if 50 members sign a petition calling for changes.
"I don't think anyone expects Mr. Blunt to hold two positions for the next 15 months," until the next Congress begins, Wamp said. "I believe that means having an election to have a separate person for each position in leadership." Wamp is not considered a major player in the party and might have trouble winning a leadership race, particularly against Cantor.
The more likely scenario is Boehner mounting a campaign for majority leader if it becomes clear DeLay will not return, according to several people familiar with his thinking. Boehner and Blunt are not close personally, and the Ohio Republican has long been plotting a return to power.
Boehner was chairman of the GOP Conference, the fourth-ranking leader, in the Gingrich era, but he was ousted by Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) in November 1998. Since then, Watts has left and Boehner has rehabilitated his reputation, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and won over colleagues with his leadership on the education committee, which helped write the No Child Left Behind law.
But House conservatives, who have consolidated power through a restructured Republican Study Committee, are growing restless and talking privately of running their own candidate, possibly Pence, the leader of the RSC. They were prepared to mount a challenge if Hastert went through with a plan to put Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) in as interim leader instead of Blunt. Instead, they are holding their fire, for now.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said conservatives will accept the speaker's call for unity only so long. Unity, he said, is "not in itself a virtue," suggesting conservatives are ready to splinter if they do not get their way in policy fights.
There are also a number of DeLay loyalists in the wings. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.) is considered likely to move up, but only after the 2006 elections. Rogers was mentioned as a possible candidate as well.
The House GOP can force leadership elections if 50 members support the move, which Wamp and others plan to push for in January. That gives Blunt three months to build support for his own leadership bid, which people close to him said is virtually certain if DeLay does not return.
In a private meeting with Hastert on Wednesday, Blunt personally appealed for the job and persuaded Hastert to give it to him. A top GOP leader said the Missouri Republican told Hastert it would look bad for Blunt, as whip, to be passed over for the promotion.
Some members said they fear it will be untenable for Blunt to serve as majority leader with a staff loyal to DeLay. Some committee chairmen privately expressed concern about Blunt's new role because he will control the agenda and does not have the same close working relationship with many of members who run committees, GOP sources said. As a compromise, Hastert made it clear that Dreier would manage relations with chairmen and work with DeLay's staff on the agenda.
Blunt did not make himself publicly available to discuss his new role yesterday. His spokeswoman, Burson Taylor, said: "This is not a situation anybody, Mr. Blunt included, asked for or wanted."
Taylor disputed suggestions that Blunt could not juggle the jobs of majority leader and whip, saying, "This is going to be a team effort, no doubt about it." Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.