In a race framed by scandal, Republican Reps. Roy Blunt and John Boehner pledged action on a reform agenda Sunday as they launched competing campaigns to succeed Tom DeLay as House majority leader.
“We’ve had a tough run recently, some of it of our own making,” Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote fellow Republicans, whose decade-long hold on power will be challenged by Democrats next fall.
“But I also believe that if we are able to renew our energy and our commitment to our basic principles, the best is yet to come.”
Blunt, the GOP whip who has served temporarily as stand-in for DeLay, made a similar observation. “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,” he wrote.
“While I have no doubt that it is, it will be difficult to move forward ... until we regain the trust and confidence of our constituents by enacting new lobbying reforms and enhanced penalties.”
Blunt and Boehner, midwestern conservatives in their 50s, moved through the early stages of a hurry-up campaign as House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., pledged to“move forward aggressively and quickly” to have the House address lobbying reform. He provided no details.
The leadership elections are expected to be held when lawmakers return to the Capitol the week of Jan. 31.
Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee, said Hastert’s pledge was “welcome and long overdue.”
The developments came one day after DeLay, under indictment on campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas, reversed course and announced he would not attempt to reclaim his post as majority leader.
That decision came in response to pressure from fellow Republicans staggered by last week’s courtroom admission of guilt by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He accepted a plea bargain that said he had provided lavish trips, golf outings, meals and more to public officials “in exchange for a series of official acts.”
DeLay was not mentioned by name in the plea bargain. At the same time, court papers said the wife of a former aide to the Texan had received $50,000 from Abramoff as part of an attempt to influence the outcome of legislation.
In an interview aired Sunday on the Fox News Channel, DeLay renewed his claims of innocence. He said he reversed course because “time was the enemy” and he concluded the party needed new leadership to allow it to pursue its election-year agenda.
Blunt, 55, is in his fifth term representing a district covering Southwest Missouri. He owes his presence in leadership to DeLay, who made Blunt chief deputy whip in 1999.
Blunt’s voting record reflects the priorities of the GOP majority that he helps lead, including opposition to abortion, support for tax cuts and approval for the landmark Medicare legislation that passed during President Bush’s first term.
Blunt drew grumbling from some Republicans late last year after taking over as DeLay’s temporary replacement. The leadership was forced to make concessions to moderates to pass a deficit-reduction bill, then found it was still short of votes. Also, a bill to cut social spending went down to defeat.
By year’s end, though, both bills had passed the House, allowing Blunt to say he had overcome significant obstacles while handling two jobs at once.
Blunt’s political action committee, Rely on Your Beliefs, distributed nearly $700,000 in donations to GOP House candidates in 2003 and 2004, and nearly $300,000 in 2005.
Boehner, 56, also has a political organization attuned to the needs of fellow Republicans.
Unlike Blunt, he came to Congress while Democrats held control. He joined the Gang of Seven, a group of energetic young lawmakers eager to draw attention to and a scandal involving the House bank and Democrats.
He won a seat at the leadership table when Republicans gained power in the 1994 elections. But clashes with DeLay soon followed, and Boehner lost his post in the fallout that followed a coup attempt against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
Two years later, seniority made Boehner chairman of the committee that had the lead role in passing Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill.
In the years since, Boehner has worked among Republicans and at times across party lines to compile a record of legislative accomplishment. Most recently, a last-minute compromise with the United Auto Workers union paved the way for bipartisan passage of pension legislation that Blunt had told reporters would not be on the year-end agenda.
Boehner wrote Republicans that he had helped “expose corruption” among House Democrats. In another reference to the current political environment, he said that after reversals earlier in his career, “I had to renew myself.”
Apart from the race for majority leader, Republicans confronted the possibility of a broader leadership shuffle.
Hastert’s support appears solid.
It was not clear whether a leadership plan to limit elections to vacancies would hold, though, with younger lawmakers jockeying for position.
Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, whom Blunt designated chief deputy whip three years ago, campaigned to succeed his mentor. He claimed more than 90 commitments out of the 118 needed to assure victory, but declined to release any names.
Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said in an interview he planned to run for whip to provide a “friendly and fresh alternative” to the current leadership.
Wamp, who established his reformers’ credentials by bucking the leadership several years ago on campaign finance legislation, said he would tell fellow Republicans they “need to reform things like lobbying.”
Aides to other lawmakers said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. and a former FBI agent, was gauging support for a challenge. A message left Sunday with his office was not immediately returned.
Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York has said he intends to remain chairman of the campaign committee.
Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, who heads the GOP conference, or caucus, has not announced her plans.