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.
"Clearly, Blunt has demonstrated great leadership; Cantor has, too," Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) said. "Are we saying we don't trust anyone in our leadership? That makes the case that everybody in Washington is on the take, that we're all corrupt."
Foley said Blunt's genial demeanor and professorial smarts would make him a strong face for the party in an election year. And he is a proven vote-getter: Through heartfelt entreaties and strong arguments, Blunt persuaded Foley to buck the interests of the Florida sugar industry and vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement last year.
"I just feel a high degree of comfort and confidence in his leadership ability," said Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.).
Beneath such public testimonials is a hard-fought campaign with a rich share of mudslinging. Boehner supporters have been happy to point out Blunt's ample ties to DeLay and, by association, to Abramoff.
Blunt's campaign committees paid Alexander Strategy Group -- a lobbying firm started by top DeLay aides with close ties to Abramoff -- $485,485 between 1999 and 2002 to start up a Blunt political action committee. His meteoric rise from president of Southwest Baptist University to House freshman in 1996 to chief deputy whip in 1999 to whip in 2002 was orchestrated in large part by DeLay. And opponents say he has followed his mentor's lead, creating a web of links to K Street that rivals DeLay Inc. His longtime chief of staff, Gregg Hartley, has helped coordinate his campaign for majority leader from the lobbying suites of Cassidy & Associates.
Blunt supporters have been just as willing to sully his rivals, painting them as no cleaner than Blunt and a lot less experienced. If neither Boehner nor Shadegg can present himself as a credible reform candidate, Blunt's institutional advantages will have few counterpoints.
In one recent fax blasted around Washington, a Boehner opponent sneered at the Ohioan's support from conservative commentators, saying they were ignoring Boehner's own links to lobbyists, especially those from one of his biggest financial supporters, student loan giant Sallie Mae.
"George Will and Tony Snow get positively dreamy when they talk about prospective House Majority Leader John Boehner," said the fax from Californian Nancy Rivas. "They say he has never used an 'earmark' to get goodies for his Ohio district. That's because he doesn't really represent them anymore. He is the Congressman from Sallie Mae."
Boehner was first elected in 1990 and quickly made a name for himself when he and six other young Republicans insisted on identifying all 355 House members who had overdrafts from the House bank. He became a lieutenant of Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and rode Gingrich's coattails to GOP leadership when Republicans took control of the House in 1995 and Gingrich became the speaker.
But Gingrich's fall in 1998 took Boehner with him. He lost his post as conference chairman, then regrouped as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, plotting the return to leadership that he has now begun.
Shadegg, who has framed his entire candidacy around a clean break from the status quo, has also come under criticism. His chief of staff, Elise Finley, is a former lobbyist for the giant utility Southern Co.
With 92 declared supporters, Blunt remains the favorite, well ahead of Boehner's 49 declared supporters and Shadegg's 16. But House members and advisers say the race remains more open than it looks.
All three candidates will make presentations to a gathering of conservative House members in Baltimore today. The House returns tomorrow for President Bush's State of the Union address, the first time most members will have the chance to discuss the race among themselves.
Then on Wednesday, the full Republican Conference will gather in closed session to question the candidates and offer motions on the election Thursday. That is when a majority could move to open all five leadership posts to election or force Blunt to relinquish his post as majority whip before running for majority leader. Later that day, the House will take a final vote on a measure to cut spending on entitlement programs such as Medicaid by nearly $50 billion over five years. As whip, it is Blunt's job to deliver the votes, and it will be close.
All those gatherings are hurdles for the front-runner, lawmakers and advisers agree.
"Blunt seems to be stumbling," said one Republican House member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "If he's wrong on his own whip count, maybe he's lost touch."