Monday, January 09, 2006

Two Major Contenders in Race to Lead House Republicans

The New York Times
Two Major Contenders in Race to Lead House Republicans

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 - The contest for House Republican leader shaped up Sunday as a race between two senior rivals, with the Bush administration and its Congressional allies braced for a potentially divisive internal battle at the start of a crucial campaign year.

One day after Representative Tom DeLay of Texas ended his effort to regain the majority leader's position, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, announced he would oppose Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri for the post.

"I want to start a conversation within our conference - a conversation about renewal," Mr. Boehner wrote in a letter to his colleagues. "Renewal in spirit, renewal in principles, renewal in commitment."

At the same time, Mr. Blunt, the No. 3 leader who has been filling in for Mr. DeLay since his indictment in a Texas campaign finance case in September, stepped up an aggressive campaign to secure commitments from his colleagues as he and his allies tracked down House members scattered for the recess. While the names of other potential leadership candidates circulated, no one else immediately stepped forward.

With Republicans reeling from a lobbying scandal that shredded support for Mr. DeLay, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert announced Sunday that Representative David Dreier, Republican of California and chairman of the Rules Committee, would explore changes in lobbying laws.

"Recent developments have made clear the need for the House to take a closer look at the rules regarding members' interactions with lobbyists," Mr. Dreier said in a statement.

Mr. Boehner and others expressed reservations about the need for more regulations, saying what was required was better enforcement of existing rules. But Mr. Blunt, in his first public appeal to colleagues, backed the idea of lobbying changes and said recent months had been made more difficult by criminal cases growing out of a federal inquiry and other suspect behavior.

"Unfortunately, the recent scandals have caused some to question whether we have lost our vision and whether the faith they have placed in us is justified," Mr. Blunt wrote in asking House Republicans for their support. "While I have no doubt that it is, it will be difficult to move forward with our platform until we regain the trust and confidence of our constituents by enacting new lobbying reforms and enhanced penalties for those who break the public trust."

For the White House, the leadership fight will complicate President Bush's efforts to press ahead with his political recovery effort after a difficult 2005. It is also likely to distract attention from the agenda he plans to set out in the State of the Union address, which he is expected to deliver on Jan. 31, in the same week as the leadership vote.

Mr. Bush had hoped to use January to accomplish two big goals: win the confirmation battle over Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s nomination to the Supreme Court, and show voters that he is overwhelmingly focused on the war in Iraq and the economy.

But the fight for Mr. DeLay's old job will highlight the internal divisions among Republicans on a variety of topics, including immigration, at a time when the party's discipline has been fraying and Mr. Bush has had trouble holding thin legislative majorities together.

Even before Mr. DeLay's decision not to try to hold on to power, administration officials and outside advisers had been concerned about their ability to prevail on battles carrying over from last year, including extending the antiterrorism bill known as the USA Patriot Act and finishing work on the budget.

The White House has sought to keep Mr. Bush insulated from any political fallout from the corruption investigations. Mr. Bush has never been particularly close to Mr. DeLay, a fellow Texan, but the White House had come to admire his ability to muscle the administration's agenda reliably through the House.

And Mr. Bush had publicly exhibited loyalty to and support for Mr. DeLay on a number of occasions over the last year as his legal and political troubles mounted; last month, the president told Fox News that he believed Mr. DeLay to be innocent of the charges filed against him in Texas and that he was hoping Mr. DeLay would resume his role as majority leader.

Congressional aides said the election to choose a permanent successor for Mr. DeLay was tentatively scheduled for Feb. 2, but both Mr. Blunt and Mr. Boehner were trying to wrap up the contest quickly by obtaining pledges from at least 116 members - a majority of the current Republican membership of 231.

"I've got of lot of phone numbers, a lot of e-mail addresses," Mr. Boehner said in an interview on the Fox News Channel. "But so far, so good."

Mr. Boehner served as conference chairman, the No. 4 position in the leadership, after Republicans seized control of the House in 1994. But he lost the job in 1998 during a leadership shakeup that sent Republicans looking for new faces at the top. Since then, he has concentrated on legislation, using his committee chairmanship to develop major education and pension bills.

Mr. Blunt was brought into the leadership in 1999 when Mr. DeLay made him chief deputy whip. He took the No. 3 whip position when Mr. DeLay was promoted to majority leader in 2002. The last few months were challenging for Mr. Blunt as he led House Republicans in Mr. DeLay's absence, struggling to reach consensus on budget issues. Mr. Blunt will try to persuade his colleagues that narrow approval of the measures last month earned him the job.

Republican officials said both men would have to reassure colleagues that they would not take a leadership slot only to be caught up later in the scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff, the onetime close associate of Mr. DeLay who pleaded guilty last week to a series of federal charges tied to his lobbying operations.

For now, House Republicans say the only position to be decided is majority leader. But if Mr. Blunt wins, it would spur an election for whip. Aides to Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, currently the deputy whip, said Sunday that he had already received more than 90 pledges of support. But others, including Representatives Mike Rogers of Michigan, a former F.B.I. agent, and Zach Wamp of Tennessee were considered possible contenders.

House Republican aides said Mr. Hastert and Mr. Dreier were open to a broad array of changes in lobbying rules and hoped to meet with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the author of his own proposal, as well as with Democrats who have introduced initiatives.

But Mr. Boehner, in his Fox interview, said "adding more new rules isn't the answer." Other lawmakers expressed a similar view.

Democrats said they were watching to see if Republicans were serious about the lobbying effort. Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recalled that the 2005 session of the House began with Republicans trying to loosen ethics rules.

"Today's announcement by Speaker Hastert that he is ready to work toward genuine lobbying and ethics reform is welcome and long overdue," Mr. Emanuel said. "My hope is that it translates into a sincere effort to clean up this institution and make it work for the people we are elected to serve."