updated 1/10/2006 9:12:46 PM ET 2006-01-11T02:12:46

House conservatives moved on Tuesday to prevent either Roy Blunt or John Boehner from wrapping up the race to become majority leader before Congress reconvenes later this month.

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Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who chairs the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 110 conservative members of the House, said he hopes the race won’t be decided before his committee holds a retreat Jan. 30-31 in Baltimore.

“I’m not going to express any endorsement” until after then, said Pence, who on Monday took his name out of the running to succeed Tom DeLay as majority leader. DeLay stepped down last September after his indictment on campaign money laundering charges. Blunt has been acting leader since then.

A group of five Florida Republicans, including Reps. Clay Shaw and Katherine Harris — both of whom support Blunt — countered with a call for earlier leadership elections.

In a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., the group said it was important not to divert attention from President Bush’s Jan. 31 State of the Union address and Republicans’ work on their 2006 agenda.

A spokesman for GOP Conference Chair Deborah Pryce of Ohio said she is canvassing lawmakers to determine whether to hold the election the week of Jan. 23.

Many sitting on their hands
Meanwhile, an informal survey of several state delegations shows that many lawmakers are withholding endorsements.

Blunt, R-Mo., the GOP whip, claims the momentum with 45 publicly declared supporters. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, claims 30 public supporters. Their totals represent about one third of all GOP lawmakers, though both camps claim additional private commitments.

It would take 116 votes to win the post.

The election comes as the GOP is reeling from poor standing in opinion polls and the wake of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s guilty pleas on federal conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud charges in a congressional influence-peddling investigation.

Not so fast
Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Charles Bass, R-N.H., are urging colleagues not to rush to judgment. They said they want to hear the candidates’ views on issues such as stuffing hometown projects into appropriations bills and the highway bill that passed last year with almost 6,500 such earmarks. Flake and Bass put together a letter last week calling for fresh leadership elections to replace DeLay.

“Thus far, no candidate has appropriately addressed these and other much-needed operational issues of the House,” Flake and Bass said in their latest letter.

Blunt was elected to the party’s No. 3 House post in 2002. He has been doing both that job and DeLay’s.

“Our confidence is growing because our list of supporters is growing,” said Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger.

Blunt’s roster of supporters includes staunch conservatives such as Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Sue Myrick, R-N.C., but also prominent moderates like Connecticut Reps. Christopher Shays and Nancy Johnson and Iowa Rep. Jim Leach.

‘Pretty energized’
Boehner’s list included Reps. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., and Anne Northup, R-Ky., but he also received praise, though not an endorsement, from New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee.

“We’re pretty energized right now,” said Boehner spokesman Don Seymour.

Neither camp was willing to predict victory, and given the unique dynamics of congressional leadership elections — which are dominated by private conversations among lawmakers — it is difficult to gauge independently a candidate’s support.

Some Republicans have grumbled that both Blunt and Boehner are too close to Washington’s lobbying community and that neither represents the fresh face that the GOP needs in the wake of DeLay’s problems and the Abramoff scandal.

Proposed mantra: ‘Policy before politics’
Meanwhile, Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., officially joined the potential race for GOP whip. That race would occur only if Blunt defeats Boehner. Reps. Eric Cantor, R-Va., Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., and Mike Rogers, R-Mich., are also in the field.

House GOP aides say pressure is mounting on Blunt to vacate the whip post regardless of whether he becomes the majority leader.

“Our mantra should be ‘policy before politics’ and we should stick to our guns with the faith that the American people will stay with us as we stand our ground,” Wamp said in a letter declaring his candidacy.

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