Leadership race tests GOP reform

Thursday's vote for House majority leader has spurred a wider debate among Republicans about the party's direction.

The uncertainty about who will win Thursday's vote for House majority leader shows how thoroughly the rally cry for reform has altered leadership politics in the US Congress.

Thursday's secret ballot was supposed to be a mere formality for Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri. After all, he's raised more cash for colleagues than either of his rivals - traditionally a key to climbing the leadership ladder. He has a crack team of deputy and assistant whips making calls for him and, as acting majority leader, he's already doing the job.

But after weeks of intense campaigning, it's not clear he has enough votes to secure victory. What's changing the race is a growing debate among Republicans about how far they must go to repair the damage caused by last fall's corruption scandals - and those yet to come.

Members who say the party can ride out the ethics storm with current leadership are falling in behind Representative Blunt. Those who feel their party needs a change of face and a more collegial leadership style are supporting Rep. John Boehner of Ohio. And those convinced that the party needs a full-course correction are moving toward Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona.

Methodical and well organized, Blunt is running on the GOP's record of accomplishment. He worries that too much focus on scandal will distract Republicans from bread-and-butter issues that mean more to voters.

An anticorruption fighter in the early days of the GOP "revolution," Representative Boehner of Ohio is campaigning to "change course" and "restore trust."

Representative Shadegg of Arizona, a late entry into the race, is running as a clean break with recent scandals. Often supporting each other's themes in recent days, Boehner and Shadegg hope to deny Blunt a first-round victory Thursday. For the past quarter century, all but two GOP majority leaders have run unopposed.

But the indictments of former majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas on state money laundering charges and the resignation of GOP Rep. Randy Cunningham of California after taking bribes from defense contractors, as well as plea bargains by former top lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associate, Michael Scanlon, put reform back on the GOP agenda - and at the center of this week's leadership races. Suddenly, ties to K Street lobbyists and their campaign funding are no longer a plus for aspiring leaders, especially if the lobbyist is Mr. Abramoff. Meanwhile, House Democrats are campaigning on a theme of a GOP culture of corruption.

"We're all reformers now," says Rep. David Dreier of California, who is leading GOP reform efforts. Wednesday, GOP leaders are proposing legislation that would cut access to the House floor and gym to former members who are lobbyists.

One of the most Byzantine exercises in American politics, House leadership races are rare and tough to call. They can turn on personal or regional loyalties, committee assignments, or favors promised. And since the ballot is secret, there's no accountability for pledges not kept.

As front-runner, Blunt says he has more than the 117 votes needed to win on a first ballot. If so, his rivals argue, he should resign his post as whip - a signal that he believes his own claims. A former president of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., Blunt rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a formidable fundraiser for the Republican cause.

"Blunt puts a pleasant and reasonable face on the effort to win votes in the House ... and explain issues to the public," says Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative group in Washington. "We need that kind of image."

Boehner's signature style is to pick an issue and get it done. As chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, he worked with the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California, to push President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind Act through the Congress. "He transformed himself into a legislator and a quite successful committee chairman," says Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Boehner is calling for task forces to help focus committees on issues such as retirement security, tax reform, and healthcare. The solution for low GOP morale, he argues, is not to avoid risk but to "take on big problems and achieve big goals."

Shadegg was one of 25 Republicans to vote against the Medicare prescription-drug benefit bill in 2003 - a landmark vote for fiscal conservatives, who strongly opposed the bill. The GOP, he says, needs to recover its roots as a party of ideas, not just a party preserving its majority.

"We need bold, persistent action on new proposals to make government smaller, more efficient, more effective, more productive, and more useful," he says.

His long-shot candidacy picked up momentum with an endorsement from Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire, a leading moderate, as well as defections to his camp from conservatives.

"I tend to think that the more pro-reform candidate will win," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

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