Aspiring House Leaders Cite Support

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri claimed yesterday to be within striking distance of the support needed to permanently succeed Tom DeLay as majority leader, but opponent John A. Boehner of Ohio said his vote count was building almost as rapidly.

As the two announced candidates traded barbs and sought to build momentum, a third Republican, Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, weighed whether to join the race as a reform candidate who is not as closely tied to the lobbying community as Blunt and Boehner.

"I am convinced we need to change and change dramatically," Shadegg said. "We need to examine ourselves and the scandals that have hit Washington."

House Republicans have battled a series of ethical problems in recent months, culminating with last week's guilty plea by high-profile lobbyist Jack Abramoff and DeLay's formal resignation on Saturday from his leadership post. The Texas Republican had been on leave pending the outcome of an unrelated campaign finance charge in Texas. Abramoff, a close DeLay friend, is cooperating with prosecutors in a broader corruption investigation that could touch several members of Congress.

Abramoff's large political network extended to many members of Congress, including Shadegg, a conservative better known as a policy expert than as a political operative. On Dec. 3, Shadegg's office returned or donated $6,900 in contributions from an Indian tribe and other sources connected to Greenberg Traurig, the law firm where Abramoff once worked. None of the money came directly from Abramoff, Shadegg spokesman Michael Steel said.

"Congressman Shadegg has never taken a dime from Jack Abramoff. He's never met Jack Abramoff," Steel said. He said the donations were discovered after the congressman directed his campaign staff to scour campaign-contribution records "to determine if there was anything with the appearance of a connection."

Democrats are trying to draw a broad portrait of immorality and corruption resulting from a decade of unchecked Republican House rule. "As far as distancing themselves from Congressman Tom DeLay, they almost have to distance themselves from themselves, because the Republican Caucus has been fully complicit with this culture of corruption," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who called yesterday for the House ethics committee to examine various allegations of Abramoff-related abuses.

Blunt, the House majority whip who has been filling in for DeLay as majority leader, said yesterday that he has lined up more than 100 commitments from fellow GOP lawmakers, just shy of the 116 needed to win the leadership race that is scheduled to take place Feb. 2.

In a news release headlined "Blunt Nears Finish Line," Blunt said he would "work aggressively in the next few hours and days to build on these commitments and to reach out to each of my colleagues."

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith fired back that "Team Boehner" counted 90 members. "Almost three days ago, the Blunt camp was boasting he would go over the top within the next several hours," Smith said. "That was three days ago, and they're only able to claim 100-plus supporters without naming them." But many of Boehner's supporters also have not yet publicly declared.

There are two broad constituencies that candidates seek in House leadership races: state delegations and ideological groups. The key is to win support from key members in different factions, who have the influence to bring others along.

Blunt, for instance, has targeted Florida, signing up at least 10 of the 18 Republicans from that state's GOP delegation, according to a list of supporters distributed by his office. One of the lawmakers is Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a senior Republican in the Florida delegation, who hopes to succeed Rep. Bill Thomas as Ways and Means Chairman when the powerful Californian -- who has not declared a preference -- gives up to the post because of term limits after the 2006 election.

Both candidates include several Texans on their list, but at least a dozen Texas Republicans will decide later this month whether to endorse one or the other as a bloc, according to local news reports. Blunt and Boehner also appear to be splitting moderate voters, with Reps. Michael N. Castle of Delaware and Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland appearing on Boehner's list, and Blunt lining up Nancy L. Johnson and Christopher Shays, both of Connecticut.

Two critical factions are barely represented on either lawmaker's list: Western states and the Republican Study Committee, a group of 100-plus conservatives. Both are considered potential power bases for Shadegg, who hails from the West and who chaired the Conservative Action Team, an RSC precursor. Senior GOP House aides said the RSC is expected to endorse a candidate after its retreat at the end of January, when members of the group are hoping to interview the contenders.

Shadegg acknowledged that "there certainly is a bloc of members out there who are looking for an alternative" but stressed that he lacked the political networks of two declared candidates. "I was never going to be competitive with Blunt or Boehner in jumping into this race with a team of people to whip votes," Shadegg said. But he added: "Do either one of the candidates sufficiently recognize that we need to change? At the moment, I'm not convinced either one of the two have."

Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

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