In an Upset, Boehner Is Elected House GOP Leader

"We must act swiftly to restore the trust between Congress and the American people," said Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who ran an insurgent campaign calling for change in the face of a widening corruption scandal, was elected yesterday to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) as House majority leader in an upset over the acting majority leader.

Boehner's victory over Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a longtime DeLay ally, stunned even the Ohioan, said House members attending the closed-door election. It sent a clear signal that most House Republicans were eager for a relatively fresh face to lead the party in an election year when the GOP's decade-long control of the House is under threat.

Boehner, 56, was part of the 1994 "Republican Revolution" and held a high-ranking leadership post under Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), but he operated on the edges throughout the reign of DeLay and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Boehner's election portends a change of direction for the House this year. In campaigning for the job, he said that the current leadership has been too top-down in its control of the legislative agenda and he signaled that he would give committee chairmen more power. The 15-year congressman also has been more willing than the DeLay-dominated leadership to cooperate with Democrats. He helped craft the bipartisan No Child Left Behind education law in President Bush's first term and worked with Democrats on a major restructuring of the private pension system passed in December.

"We must act swiftly to restore the trust between Congress and the American people," Boehner said in a written statement. "We must take the necessary steps to get the federal budget under control -- to cut wasteful spending, reform our entitlement programs and craft a budget process that encourages fiscal discipline. And we must recommit ourselves to reducing the influence of government in our lives."

Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) said: "We need someone who can move difficult legislation, who can work with Republicans and Democrats."

Blunt, who as majority whip will still be the third-ranking Republican in the House, came within six votes of victory, as the winner needs more than half the votes cast. He picked up 110 supporters in the first round of the secret balloting, compared with Boehner's 79. Forty votes went to Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), while two lawmakers wrote in Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.). With just a handful more needed in a second round of voting, members began sending e-mails saying that Blunt appeared to have won.

But in a second, head-to-head tally pitting the first- and second-place finishers, Boehner scored a decisive 122 to 109 win. Freed from their promises, several Blunt supporters also switched their support to Boehner, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

"The members wanted to make a big decision, and they did," Boehner said.

Yesterday's vote marked the final big step in Boehner's political rehabilitation since he was ousted as the chairman of the House Republican Conference in 1998, after his party lost five congressional seats. He gradually worked his way back into the limelight by pushing through important education and pension legislation as chairman of the education panel.

But it was mounting concern about a political corruption scandal -- not Boehner's or Blunt's legislative skills -- that colored the leadership contest until the end. DeLay had stepped down in September after his indictment in Texas on campaign finance charges. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to accept $2.4 million in bribes. Then, last month, GOP lobbyist and DeLay ally Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials and promised to cooperate with a sprawling federal corruption investigation. Under mounting pressure, DeLay relinquished his claims to the majority leader's post, officially beginning a scramble for new leadership.

From the start, Blunt presented himself as the candidate of continuity and proven leadership, while first Boehner and then Shadegg called for change to prove to voters that the Republican Party is taking the corruption scandal seriously. Blunt's list of public supporters was always comfortably longer than Boehner's. But it was not until this week that House members returned to Washington from a long recess and the candidates could campaign in person. Boehner said even members who committed to Blunt began realizing this vote had far more significance than the typical leadership contests that are decided on personality, personal contacts and promises.

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