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Two Emerge as House Leadership Contenders

Times Staff Writer

The contest to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as House majority leader appeared to shape up as a two-man race Monday, as Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) and another possible contender announced they would not run for the powerful No. 2 position.

That apparently leaves the field to two senior Republicans -- Roy Blunt of Missouri and John A. Boehner of Ohio -- to compete for support from fellow House Republicans, who will choose DeLay’s successor in a secret ballot election the week of Jan. 30.

There is a chance that another candidate may yet enter the race because there are a large number of undecided lawmakers, including some who think neither Blunt nor Boehner offers the fresh face they believe the party needs to distance itself from a recent spate of scandals.

Indeed, two lawmakers who had called for DeLay’s departure urged their colleagues Monday to refrain from public commitments in the contest, saying no candidates had yet fully addressed their demand for broader institutional reforms, such as elimination of pork-barrel projects.

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“Elections that appear to be foregone conclusions do not advance the reformist agenda many of us pledged to uphold to our constituents,” Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Charles Bass (R-N.H.) said in a letter to their colleagues.

Still, the likelihood of a three-way race diminished, as no other candidate emerged and Blunt and Boehner moved aggressively to build support -- mostly by telephone, because Congress is in recess and lawmakers are spread around the country.

The stakes in this succession struggle are high. The GOP is trying to recover from a rocky 2005, which saw the indictment of DeLay on campaign finance-related charges in Texas and the plea agreement of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff on corruption charges.

“This is a defining moment for House Republicans,” said Lewis, who announced Monday he would remain as House Appropriations Committee chairman rather than run for majority leader. “The decision we make in filling the position of majority leader will largely determine our ability to remain as the governing majority in the House of Representatives.”

The winner of the contest to succeed DeLay may also be in line soon to rise to the House’s No. 1 leadership post, because House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is expected to retire after 2008.

DeLay, who temporarily stepped down as leader in September after he was indicted, announced Saturday that he had given up his hopes of returning to the post once his legal issues were resolved.

Prospects for DeLay’s money-laundering case in Texas being resolved quickly were dealt another setback Monday when the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals denied his request that the charges against him be dismissed or sent back to a lower court for immediate trial. The denial appears to leave in place a lower court judge’s decision not to proceed with DeLay’s trial until prosecutors have a chance to appeal the dismissal of another charge they had sought.

Hastert announced this weekend that Republicans would choose DeLay’s successor after Congress reconvenes from a monthlong recess at the end of January.

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Boehner and Blunt immediately began campaigning, but Lewis and others spent the weekend considering their options. Another potential contender, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a leader of a powerful faction of House conservatives, also announced Monday he would not run.

Another conservative leader, Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, has been thinking about entering the race but has so far made no move.

“The issue is not who is the next majority leader, but where that leader takes us,” Shadegg said Sunday. “We need dramatic change and real reform. I will make my decision based on whether a candidate will deliver that change.”

A Blunt-Boehner face-off features two little-known insiders who have more in common with each other and with DeLay than their rivalry for power might suggest.

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Both are prolific fundraisers and close to business lobbyists, whom DeLay has systematically made part of the GOP political operation.

Both have leadership experience: Blunt has been House majority whip, the No. 3 party post, since 2002; Boehner was the party’s No. 4 leader from 1994 until 1998 and is now chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Blunt draws support from a base of some five dozen members of his whip organization, a band of hand-picked lieutenants who help him in efforts to exert party discipline and conduct head counts before major roll call votes.

Many GOP handicappers give Blunt an advantage in the race because he has been serving as DeLay’s temporary successor since September, giving him on-the-job training.

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But his experience is not an unalloyed asset, as some lawmakers faulted him for a rocky year-end in which Republicans splintered over key issues and struggled to pass major budget bills.

Boehner, whose core supporters include fellow Republicans from the big Ohio delegation and members of his committee, is presenting himself as a fresh face with the legislative skill to get the party out of the doldrums.

“We seem adrift, uncomfortable with our ability to reach big goals and unsure about what we stand for,” Boehner said in a 37-page campaign manifesto, “A Majority That Matters.”

If Blunt wins the promotion to majority leader, Republicans will hold an election to replace him as whip.

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Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a Blunt ally as his chief deputy whip, is considered a favorite for the post. However, two other lawmakers -- Reps. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas and Mike Rogers of Michigan -- announced Monday that they would also run for the job.

Hastert announced Monday that he would not require, as some lawmakers wanted him to, Blunt to give up his whip’s position in order to run for leader. That opens the possibility that if Boehner were elected leader, Blunt would stay on as whip.


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