WASHINGTON—Eager to project a fresh face amid some embarrassing scandals, Republicans in the House of Representatives shook up their top ranks on Thursday and signaled their desire to shift away from their recent immersion in special-interest pork-barrel politics.
In a stunning upset, the House Republicans elected Ohio Rep. John Boehner as their majority leader, defeating Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, who'd been favored as the incumbent since last fall. The majority leader helps set the party agenda, controls the flow of legislation, assembles votes and can be a public spokesman for his party.
While House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., remains in the top job, the rejection of Blunt is a break from the leadership era of Rep. Tom DeLay, the hard-charging Texan known as "the Hammer." DeLay was Hastert's strong man until he was indicted on charges of laundering campaign money last fall and a burgeoning lobbying scandal forced him to surrender his leadership post. Blunt was a close ally of DeLay's; Boehner was not. Blunt reverted to the No. 3 leadership post, majority whip.
"There was a desire to get as far away from Tom DeLay as possible. Roy Blunt could not overcome his close association with DeLay," said Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo. "The message is that we do want to change. We don't want the perception or the reality that this is a place of corruption."
Boehner (pronounced BAY-nor), a personable, chain-smoking dealmaker, declared himself humbled by the outcome. Draping an arm around Blunt, he said: "What you're going to see us do is rededicate ourselves to dealing with issues—big issues—that the American people expect us to deal with."
Republicans have been distracted in recent months by DeLay's indictment by a Texas grand jury, by Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea to charges of corrupting public officials, and by former California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's admission that he took bribes from defense contractors. They fear the scandals could hurt them in this year's mid-term elections.
"We kind of lost our way, we lost our message," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a Boehner supporter.
Boehner ran on a pledge to limit the ability of individual congressmen to insert special interest provisions called "earmarks" into legislation. They're an easy way to reward Washington lobbyists and campaign donors. They're inserted without public review, and their numbers have skyrocketed over the past decade. Last year's big highway bill alone contained 6,371 earmarks costing $24 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.
"The ability that members of Congress have to basically, in essence, write checks for donors and colleagues, for individuals and organizations, is simply wrong. We shouldn't have that power and we need to get rid of it," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Boehner is no stranger to lobbying, however. In 1995, he distributed checks from tobacco industry political action committees to House members on the House floor. He's since said that he regretted handing out the checks.
He's also the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and a leading recipient of campaign money from Sallie Mae, the nation's leader in college loans.
Though House Democrats largely kept silent on the Republican election, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean called Boehner's election a sign of hypocrisy.
"With Boehner in power, lobbyists won't have to wait in the lobby anymore, because they'll have their own backdoor into the majority leader's office," Dean said.
The secret ballot unfolded dramatically, and lawmakers described the closed-door session as tense. Blunt had claimed about 100 public pledges of support and had predicted an outright win in a three-man race.
But Blunt, Boehner and John Shadegg of Arizona split the first ballot, with Blunt getting 110 votes, six shy of what he needed to win, Boehner 79 and Shadegg 40.
Shadegg then dropped out, and Blunt and Boehner faced a runoff. The final tally was Boehner 122, Blunt 109.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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