High stakes for the White House in tussle over who will lead the GOP on Capitol Hill

But the administration is taking care not to reveal whether it has a preferred candidate for House majority leader.

As congressional Republicans work to boost their scandal-tainted image through lobby reform proposals and the election of a new majority leader, their partner at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue - the White House - is taking an expected low-key stance.

But for President Bush, starting his sixth year in office Friday, the stakes could be just as high. After a rocky 2005, the president is hoping to build on his year-end bump in the polls and press ahead on his agenda, including boosting support for the Iraq war and talking up positive economic news, as well as initiatives that require congressional approval.

"It's hard for the White House to regain momentum if the Congress is in disarray," says political analyst Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "It ties up the Republicans in Congress and limits their ability to execute any White House agenda."

Does the White House have a favorite in the House leadership race? If it does, it's not saying. And, analysts say, it would be wise for the White House to stay on the sidelines - unlike the awkward dumping of Trent Lott as Senate majority leader three years ago, when he was accused of making a racially tinged remark on the late Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday. Then, the president played a hand in Senator Lott's downfall by not coming to his defense, and it is widely suspected that the White House used back channels to ease Sen. Bill Frist into the leadership job.

Now, the White House would be taking a big risk in choosing sides among the three House GOP candidates - Reps. Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boehner of Ohio, and John Shadegg of Arizona. Whomever the White House would back, even privately, it would alienate the supporters of the other two.

Careful not to 'offend the base'

"It's dicier this time," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council and former Republican activist. Being caught trying to affect the outcome "would divide the base of their party. The first commandment of the White House is don't offend the base."

Of the three candidates, Representatives Blunt and Boehner are seen as more "company men" than Representative Shadegg, who was elected in the Republican Revolution of 1994 and still has more the image of a conservative maverick than the other two. From the White House's perspective, Shadegg would represent more of a wild card - but going against him could alienate the conservatives who have rallied around him.

The irony is that, as an outsider, Shadegg may represent a fresher face than the other two, at a time when the taint of the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal has given the lobbyists of K Street a bad name. Blunt is already serving as temporary House majority leader - the No. 2 spot below speaker - after Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas stepped aside. Both Blunt and Boehner have close ties to K Street, and so the ascension of either to majority leader gives Democrats ammunition to charge Republicans with business as usual.

Whether the public notices is another question. Polls show that Americans hold both congressional parties in low esteem, with neither more corrupt than the other. But in the march to the crucial November midterm elections, if the GOP-controlled House and White House are seen as ineffectual, Republicans could find themselves in the voters' bull's-eye.

Vote set for Feb. 2

The new House Republican leadership lineup should be settled by Feb. 2, when the caucus is scheduled to vote. The White House had reportedly urged an earlier election, so that the president could deliver his State of the Union address on Jan. 31 with leadership matters settled, but the House chose not to return to Washington early.

As for Lott, there's an ironic footnote to his announcement this week that he will seek reelection. The prospect of Lott's retirement sent chills through Republicans who are worried that a strong Democratic contender could win his seat - boosting the chance that the GOP could lose control of the Senate. Lott was heavily wooed by the Republican Party and White House officials to run again. Now the question is whether he will try to regain his leadership post, when Senator Frist retires in a year.

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