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GOP Divides Duties of Majority Leader Three Ways

Times Staff Writer

Soon after Rep. Tom DeLay was forced to temporarily resign his position as the No. 2 leader in the House on Wednesday, Republicans announced that it would take three men to do the work he had done alone.

The process of dividing up the Texas Republican’s job as majority leader became a confusing matter, ensnared in personal loyalties, grass-roots demands and the traditional Republican respect for the established chain of command.

After the dust had settled, an early front-runner to take DeLay’s job -- Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) -- was relegated to a lesser role in the power-sharing agreement, and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) inherited DeLay’s title and a large share of his responsibilities.

Dreier will handle the committee chairmen, keeping them in line during DeLay’s absence. In his new role, Blunt will also be assisted by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the chief deputy whip, in shepherding legislation through the House and counting votes.

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House aides said that Dreier was initially considered for the lead role, but that some lawmakers complained about bypassing Blunt, who as the No. 3 official in the GOP hierarchy was next in line to succeed DeLay. Hard-line conservatives opposed the 13-term Dreier as “squishy” on social issues, such as immigration and abortion.

The power-sharing agreement was meant to signal the confidence among House leaders that DeLay would overcome his legal problems, Republican congressional sources said, and return to his leadership post, as no one man would be able to consolidate power in that role while he was away.

But it also revealed a party in disarray. The force of DeLay’s personality, energy and fundraising enforced a high degree of party discipline. And when it came time to replace him, the Republican-led House, like most entities with a dominating chief, had no clear succession plan.

“This is very uncharted territory for everybody,” said Brad Smith, Dreier’s chief of staff. “Everyone is just trying to figure out how this works from a logistic standpoint.”

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The end result puts the House in the hands of Blunt -- a 55-year-old Bible Belt conservative not unlike DeLay -- rather than in those of a 53-year-old urban Californian who is a reliable conservative vote on economic issues but who opposed banning same-sex marriages.

“Blunt is a standard partisan, more of a DeLay Jr.,” said Jim Pinkerton, a former GOP White House aide who is now a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. “Dreier would have been a little bit daring for them, a little too thoughtful, too independent

After the indictment was announced, it looked as if Dreier would ascend to one of the most powerful leadership positions in Congress. News outlets were lining up to interview him. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa opened an afternoon news conference by congratulating Dreier on his new post.

Pundits concluded that the GOP leadership had come to realize the necessity of a telegenic face that did not seem partisan or nasty. Dreier, affable and impeccably groomed, began his political career as one of the youngest candidates elected to Congress and rose to become chairman of the powerful Rules Committee.

Democrats dislike his politics, but he makes few enemies. A frequent face of conservatism on rough-and-tumble cable talk shows, Dreier never fails to display his Midwestern prep school etiquette. As a fellow legislator once put it: “He’s the kind of lawmaker who can tell you to go to hell and you look forward to making the trip.” Pinkerton described Dreier as having such “a quality of thoughtfulness and affability that when people see him on TV, they will think to themselves that Republicans made a change.”

But those very qualities may have helped sink Dreier, who Capitol Hill sources say was the first choice of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). With their leader under indictment for conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme, sources said that GOP stalwarts felt it was time to stay relentlessly on message, and Dreier might have changed the tone.

At a noontime luncheon of the conservative Republican Study Committee, attendees expressed with a show of hands their misgivings about Dreier’s abilities, said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who was there.

“You had a lot of discussion in that room: Will Mr. Dreier be pro-choice? Will he advance the conservative agenda?” Kingston said.

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K.B. Forbes, a conservative GOP strategist, voiced delight at the abrupt turnabout in Dreier’s fortunes, saying his appointment would have been “a slap in the face” of the party’s most fervent followers.

“Dreier’s problem is he’s seen as a nice guy, but he’s been squishy on issues that are dear to grass-roots conservatives,” Forbes said, citing the congressman’s stance on deficit spending, immigration and social issues.

As for Dreier, Smith said that his boss didn’t want the job, though he would have accepted if asked. Acting as the interim leader, Smith added, would have meant giving up his Rules Committee chairmanship, which he had little desire to do.

Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak, Michael Finnegan and Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.


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