In the fall of 1996, when Roy Blunt of Missouri first ran for Congress, he made an auspicious visit to Capitol Hill.
First he stopped in to see Rep. Mel Hancock, the man he hoped to replace. Hancock urged Blunt to seek the freshman seat on the leadership-heavy Republican Steering Committee. "That puts you in the room with everybody here," Blunt recalls Hancock told him.
Then Blunt paid a courtesy call to Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texan who had ascended to the number-three-ranking whip job in 10 short years. "I left that meeting thinking, this is a great guy to work with," Blunt said in an interview yesterday. He consulted with DeLay over the course of his campaign and arrived in Washington as the protege of one of the most powerful men in town.
Blunt would outpace his onetime mentor by rising from lowly Missouri freshman to interim majority leader in just nine years. When DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader on Wednesday, after he was indicted by an Austin grand jury, Blunt went to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and argued persuasively that he should get the job.
His challenge now -- many lawmakers and aides agree -- is to prove his mettle in a higher-profile post while not appearing too ambitious, lest he become a threat to DeLay, who has vowed to return to his job when his legal problems are resolved.
Although the two have very different personalities, Blunt has modeled his political career on DeLay's, becoming in many respects a replica of the former majority leader. Like DeLay, Blunt quickly set up multiple political committees to establish a power base in the House.
Blunt has strengthened and enlarged DeLay's "K Street" alliance with Washington lobbyists. The two have a similar network of major corporate donors. Both have extensive financial ties to the Washington lobbying firm Alexander Strategy Group. Some of Blunt's actions have raised ethical issues.
With a smoother and less intimidating demeanor than DeLay's, Blunt is regarded by some of his colleagues as a somewhat less effective whip. But he does score points for creativity, by developing alliances with lobbying groups, including some with Democratic leanings, to help lobby reluctant members.
Blunt delivered more than 50 consecutive victories for the GOP leadership on tough fights over issues including tax and trade bills, Alaska drilling, District of Columbia school choice and tort reform.
"I'm not at all shy about reaching out to people on the outside," Blunt said about his way of passing tough bills through a narrowly divided chamber. "You don't do that only by looking at what resources are available to you in the building."
Blunt refers to the chaos of the past three days as "unfortunate events," made all the more trying because of conflicting reports and rumors about the events, some suggesting that he had sought to benefit from DeLay's problems.
According to Blunt, he met with Hastert on Wednesday morning to discuss how to proceed without DeLay. Rumors were flying at the time that the leadership would choose Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) to temporarily assume the majority leader's duties. But by the end of the meeting, Hastert had decided to put Blunt in the post, with Dreier taking a supporting role. The GOP conference then affirmed the arrangement.
Blunt said yesterday that the decision amounted to a redistribution of duties among leaders already in place. Disputing reports of infighting and unrest among the Republicans, Blunt asserted that the DeLay debacle has worked to "solidify our conference in a way that hasn't existed in a while."
Blunt, 55, known for his arching eyebrows and Southern Missouri twang, is the son of a state representative, and taught history before being named Greene County clerk by then-Gov. Christopher S. Bond. He was always good at finding powerful mentors, another being John D. Ashcroft, the former senator and attorney general.
Blunt's son Matt is Missouri governor, and his son Andrew is a top state government lobbyist whose client list is studded with major donors of his father.
Some of Blunt's activities have prompted criticism, for instance an unsuccessful 2002 maneuver to attach a provision banning tobacco sales on the Internet to the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security.
Blunt did not succeed, but the effort struck many of his colleagues as an overreach, given that his son was a lobbyist for Philip Morris in Missouri, Blunt himself was dating a Philip Morris lobbyist whom he later married, and the congressman had received more than $150,000 in contributions from the company and subsidiaries.
Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor noted that the same provision later passed in the Senate with bipartisan support and is now pending before a House-Senate conference committee as part of an extension of the USA Patriot Act. She said its aim is to curtail contraband cigarette sales, believed to be a funding source for some terrorist groups. "You can know lobbyists without anything nefarious going on," Taylor said.
Still, the episode is being cited by Democrats as evidence of the cronyism and corruption that one-party Republican rule has bred. "It's another example of this notion of anything goes, get it while you can," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.).
People who know Blunt well say one of his talents is that he "sees political reality better than most folks," as one longtime former GOP leadership aide put it. Another former aide recalls Blunt being one of the first senior Republicans to signal to the White House that Social Security reform was unlikely to come to a vote this year. Just before the 2004 election, he suggested that the worst outcome for Republicans would be for Bush to be reelected and the GOP to win control of both houses of Congress -- because then the party would have no one to blame when problems arose.
"Blunt has a different style from DeLay, he's not an 'in-your-face' guy, but he plays by the same rules, and has many of the same ambitions and instincts," said Thomas E. Mann, a Brookings Institution congressional expert.
Descriptions vary on the nature of DeLay and Blunt's relationship, but many agree there has been a lot of tension between their two staffs. "There's some natural and appropriate tension between leadership staff," said Blunt. But he considers DeLay "a good friend of mine" and says the two have "never had a cross word."
One realm in which Blunt has closely modeled himself after DeLay is in his K Street connections.
Blunt has cultivated many of the same tobacco, pharmaceutical, railroad and energy interests that helped turn DeLay into a fundraising kingpin on Capitol Hill.
He also hired James W. Ellis to run his major political committees, the same person who ran many of DeLay's political committees and who was indicted with DeLay by a Texas grand jury on a single charge of conspiracy to violate state election law.
As Blunt climbed the leadership ladder, he created a network of fundraising committees modeled on the DeLay organization and paid large sums to Alexander Strategy Group, which employed DeLay's wife and many of DeLay's former top aides.
Research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.