Pursuing a Fast Track To Party Leadership

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), right, now the interim House majority leader, arrived as a protege of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), left, who stepped aside this week.
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), right, now the interim House majority leader, arrived as a protege of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), left, who stepped aside this week. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Shailagh Murray and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 1, 2005

In the fall of 1996, when Roy Blunt of Missouri first ran for Congress, he made an auspicious visit to Capitol Hill.

First he stopped in to see Rep. Mel Hancock, the man he hoped to replace. Hancock urged Blunt to seek the freshman seat on the leadership-heavy Republican Steering Committee. "That puts you in the room with everybody here," Blunt recalls Hancock told him.

Then Blunt paid a courtesy call to Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texan who had ascended to the number-three-ranking whip job in 10 short years. "I left that meeting thinking, this is a great guy to work with," Blunt said in an interview yesterday. He consulted with DeLay over the course of his campaign and arrived in Washington as the protege of one of the most powerful men in town.

Blunt would outpace his onetime mentor by rising from lowly Missouri freshman to interim majority leader in just nine years. When DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader on Wednesday, after he was indicted by an Austin grand jury, Blunt went to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and argued persuasively that he should get the job.

His challenge now -- many lawmakers and aides agree -- is to prove his mettle in a higher-profile post while not appearing too ambitious, lest he become a threat to DeLay, who has vowed to return to his job when his legal problems are resolved.

Although the two have very different personalities, Blunt has modeled his political career on DeLay's, becoming in many respects a replica of the former majority leader. Like DeLay, Blunt quickly set up multiple political committees to establish a power base in the House.

Blunt has strengthened and enlarged DeLay's "K Street" alliance with Washington lobbyists. The two have a similar network of major corporate donors. Both have extensive financial ties to the Washington lobbying firm Alexander Strategy Group. Some of Blunt's actions have raised ethical issues.

With a smoother and less intimidating demeanor than DeLay's, Blunt is regarded by some of his colleagues as a somewhat less effective whip. But he does score points for creativity, by developing alliances with lobbying groups, including some with Democratic leanings, to help lobby reluctant members.

Blunt delivered more than 50 consecutive victories for the GOP leadership on tough fights over issues including tax and trade bills, Alaska drilling, District of Columbia school choice and tort reform.

"I'm not at all shy about reaching out to people on the outside," Blunt said about his way of passing tough bills through a narrowly divided chamber. "You don't do that only by looking at what resources are available to you in the building."

Blunt refers to the chaos of the past three days as "unfortunate events," made all the more trying because of conflicting reports and rumors about the events, some suggesting that he had sought to benefit from DeLay's problems.

According to Blunt, he met with Hastert on Wednesday morning to discuss how to proceed without DeLay. Rumors were flying at the time that the leadership would choose Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) to temporarily assume the majority leader's duties. But by the end of the meeting, Hastert had decided to put Blunt in the post, with Dreier taking a supporting role. The GOP conference then affirmed the arrangement.

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