Corruption Scandals Cast Shadow on GOP Leadership Race

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006

In eight concise paragraphs, two moderate and two conservative House Republicans put into writing last week what they say many of their colleagues quietly fear: the GOP's plunging poll numbers, rising public support for a Congress controlled by Democrats and the increasing belief among voters that the Republican Party is corrupt.

House Republicans will gather Thursday to elect a successor to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) as majority leader, and the perceptions of corruption, though "neither fair nor accurate . . . are reality," Reps. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.), Charles Bass (N.H.), Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Tom Feeney (Fla.) wrote in a letter to their colleagues, imploring them to vote for change. "We must realize that the Majority we have all worked so hard for is in jeopardy."

It is not clear how widespread such fear is on Capitol Hill, with Congress in recess, but it has shaped the campaigns of Reps. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) as they try to derail the front-runner -- Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the majority whip and acting majority leader -- in a race that has taken on enormous significance.

Blunt aides insist that their boss, running as the candidate of continuity and proven leadership, already has the race wrapped up, with more than enough committed supporters to hand him a swift victory on the first ballot. Blunt's chief deputy whip, Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), has said he also has the votes to move up to the whip's job, if Blunt vacates the post to become majority leader.

But supporters of Blunt's opponents say the acting majority leader has stumbled badly in recent days, as Boehner and Shadegg push to turn the leadership contest into a referendum on how seriously the party is taking a corruption scandal that has already led to the conviction of one Republican House member and former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. A vote for Blunt to succeed the indicted DeLay and, for that matter, Cantor to succeed Blunt as whip, would send precisely the wrong message, supporters of Boehner and Shadegg say.

The scandal is "a big problem, a broadening problem," said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), a Boehner supporter. "And at the end of the day, I don't think the Republican Party should say, 'It is so big we've decided to promote everybody.' "

An internal leadership race is often won or lost not on big themes such as reform and continuity but on personal relationships and promises made to individual lawmakers. But this week's contest may be different, say strategists for all three candidates. It is taking shape before a backdrop of scandal and in an election year when Democrats see their best chance of regaining control of the House in years.

A Blunt victory probably would keep the year's legislative agenda focused on themes already voiced by the existing leadership team: immigration law changes, a restructuring of congressional lobbying rules and fiscal discipline. A victory by either Boehner or Shadegg could lead to a significant change of direction, fortifying conservative forces that want to radically curtail home-district pork-barrel spending, cut down the size of government and resume pushing power to state and local governments.

Boehner and Shadegg both say they can win the campaign outright, but an unspoken alliance between the two appears aimed at denying Blunt a majority vote in the first round of voting. The third-place finisher could then endorse the runner-up to defeat Blunt in the next round of voting.

The two have put out joint statements calling on Blunt to appear live with them on television for a debate. And virtually every statement from Shadegg, from the announcement that he had joined the race to each endorsement of the Arizonan, has been followed by statement from Boehner praising Shadegg. After Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the chairman of the House's conservative Republican Study Committee, threw his support to Shadegg Jan. 19, Boehner all but declared it a victory.

"Mike's decision to endorse one of the reform candidates in this race instead of endorsing the incumbent is further evidence that a majority of our conference wants a change in the status quo," Boehner said. "As I said days ago when John Shadegg entered the race, between the two of us, we're going to make this a race about reform."

Blunt's supporters say the drumbeat for "reform" smacks of unnecessary panic.

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