By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 6, 2006
An internal battle is underway among House Republicans to permanently replace Rep. Tom DeLay (Tex.) as majority leader and put in place a new leadership lineup that is better equipped to deal with the growing corruption scandal.
Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (Mo.) will ask House Republicans to make his temporary tenure permanent early next month if, as is likely, DeLay is unable to clear his name in the gathering corruption and campaign finance scandals, according to a member of the GOP leadership and several leadership aides.
The move would almost certainly touch off a GOP power struggle between Blunt, whose rise to power was heavily aided by DeLay and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio), a former House leader who has been maneuvering for a comeback.
But other potential candidates could add unexpected twists, especially if rank-and-file Republicans decide that neither Blunt nor Boehner would present a fresh response to the corruption scandal triggered by Jack Abramoff, a GOP lobbyist with close ties to DeLay.
Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, recently said in an Internet chat that he had "no present intention of seeking any leadership position at this time" but that circumstances could change.
A potential bid by Pence, who has angered some members with what they consider grandstanding on a host of issues, has prompted some conservatives to reach out to the low-key Rep. John Shadegg (Ariz.) as an alternative. Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.) has announced his intention to run for a leadership post, saying yesterday that "the leadership of Congress needs to be above reproach." Other dark horses could emerge as members scramble for a consensus candidate.
Hastert appears secure in the speakership, despite his own ties to Abramoff-related fundraising and other activities. Abramoff's guilty pleas have renewed scrutiny of a letter the speaker sent to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton in June 2003 urging her to block a casino opposed by Abramoff's Indian tribe clients. The letter was sent just days after Abramoff's tribal clients contributed more than $20,000 to Hastert's political action committee at a fundraiser at Signatures, the swank restaurant the lobbyist owned at the time.
Abramoff's guilty pleas this week and pledge to cooperate with federal prosecutors in investigating members of Congress could significantly add to DeLay's legal problems. But the more immediate threat is the legal battle in Texas over his indictments on campaign finance violations. DeLay had hoped that the court battle with Travis County Prosecutor Ronnie Earle over the money-laundering charges would be well underway by now, if not over. Instead, the case is dragging on over multiple appeals and pretrial motions.
"I would have told you a month ago we'd be in trial by now, but that was before Ronnie Earle pulled his shenanigans with his frivolous appeals," said Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's lead attorney in the case.
Now, the Justice Department's bribery and corruption investigation has forced one former DeLay aide, Michael Scanlon, to plead guilty to corruption charges, while another, Tony C. Rudy, has been implicated in Abramoff's plea agreement.
Leadership aides and DeLay allies said that, in light of the Texas case and Abramoff's plea agreements, they now expect DeLay to soon renounce claims to the leadership post he was forced to relinquish under GOP House rules when he was indicted in September -- and certainly before a planned House Republican retreat on Feb. 9.
"The environment has changed. I don't even need to qualify that," said the GOP leadership member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he does not want to be seen as pressuring DeLay to step aside.
DeLay remains determined to reclaim his leadership position, and he is confident that he will be exonerated in Texas before early February, DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said yesterday. But there are few others who share that optimism, even among leadership members and aides who only weeks ago expressed the same confidence.
Since DeLay's indictment, Blunt has served as both House majority whip and acting majority leader.
The Missourian would enter a leadership election as the favorite to take DeLay's place as majority leader. And he has said his position in the Republican conference was significantly strengthened last month when he successfully steered through the House a $50 billion budget-cutting measure, legislation cracking down on illegal immigration and a provision forcing a 1 percent across-the-board cut in all discretionary spending outside of veterans programs.
But other members, particularly committee chairmen, are stressing the leadership's blunders, including the embarrassing defeat of a spending bill funding labor, health and education programs, and the initial pulling of the budget measure from House consideration for lack of votes.
Boehner has been angling for a top job for most of his eight terms in the House. In the early 1990s, he belonged to a group of young Republican crusaders who sought to publicize the names of more than 350 members with overdrafts at the House bank -- setting off a major political scandal. He rode on Newt Gingrich's coattails to rise in the Republican leadership, but he lost his job as conference chairman when the Gingrich era ended, after GOP losses in the 1998 midterm elections.
Rather than retreat, however, Boehner moved into a new realm, rising in 2000 to become chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, where he earned praise from Republicans and Democrats alike for his handling of the No Child Left Behind education legislation.
But Boehner's record has some blemishes that could be used against him by his opponents. In 1995, Boehner raised eyebrows by distributing campaign checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor. Since 2000, his political action committee, the Freedom Project, has raised $31,500 from four of Abramoff's tribal clients.
Such concerns could provide an opening for supporters of Pence or Shadegg. Alternatively, some leadership sources say discontented GOP members could draft a more experienced lawmaker, such as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (Calif.), who would have the weight of his powerful panel and his big state delegation behind him. Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield dismissed such speculation, saying Lewis "likes the job he has."
Blunt's move for the position of majority leader would leave Chief Deputy Whip Eric I. Cantor (Va.) with a chance to claim the whip's post. But Cantor, too, would likely draw opposition.
One leadership source close to DeLay said some members hope to draft Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), a former FBI agent who specialized in public corruption cases, for that post to signal that the party is taking the Abramoff scandal seriously.