House Republicans, fearing a voter backlash over the influence-peddling and campaign finance investigations that knocked Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from his leadership post, are hoping that whomever they choose as a replacement will help distance them from the scandals.
But they are running into a problem. The people competing to succeed DeLay have links to some of the same lobbyists and fundraising machinery that have put him, and the Republican Party, in political peril.
Anxiety over the scandals -- which center around a federal investigation of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his ties to lawmakers and some of their senior staffers -- has turned what is usually an insular race for the post of House majority leader into something much more: a test of how far Republicans are willing to go in clamping down on the lobbying and fundraising practices that have helped the party maintain its dominant position in Washington.
The leading candidate, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), has strong ties to some of corporate America's most powerful lobbyists and is married to a lobbyist for the parent company of Philip Morris USA and Kraft Foods Inc. His political action committee received $8,500 from Abramoff and his wife, although Blunt announced this month that he would donate that amount to charity.
Blunt's leading rival, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), played a key role in the party's effort to build stronger ties to the business and lobbying community.
On Friday, a third candidate entered the race, positioning himself as free of the lobbying ties that are so identified with Blunt and Boehner. "I believe that we need a clean break from the scandals of the recent past," Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) said in announcing his intention to vie for the leadership post.
But Shadegg, a fiscal conservative, has his own ties to clients and associates of Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this month to federal charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation into his ties to lawmakers and staffers, raising fears in Congress that more Capitol Hill figures could face charges.
The day before Shadegg entered the race, the Arizona Republic revealed that in December, he had given back or donated to charity more than $6,900 in campaign contributions from Abramoff's clients and associates; one of the contributions, the newspaper said, had been undisclosed for five years -- in violation of federal campaign finance rules.
Michael Steel, Shadegg's press secretary, confirmed the violation but said the failure to disclose the contribution was a clerical oversight. He argued that the lawmaker's ties to the lobbying world were far less extensive than those of the other two candidates.
One prominent lobbyist gave a similar assessment.
"I don't think he's got the same ... connections," R. Bruce Josten, a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of Shadegg.
Steel said Shadegg did not know Abramoff and had never accepted a contribution directly from him.
But he did accept contributions linked to Abramoff, including the use on three occasions of sports arena skyboxes leased in Abramoff's name for fundraisers. Shadegg also accepted a fundraising dinner paid for by Kevin Ring, an Abramoff partner, according to Shadegg's staff.
Republican strategists agreed Friday that Shadegg's entry into the race had changed the dynamic, making the question of ethics and lobbying reform more central. "It throws it wide open," said one Republican strategist close to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the race.
Republicans have scheduled their leadership election for Feb. 2, after members return from their winter break. At the moment, they are electing only a majority leader, the second-most senior post in the House and one that could position the winner to run for House speaker. Some members, however, are pushing for broader elections that would encompass five other leadership posts.
The position of Blunt and Boehner as front-runners is due in part to the quirky way congressional leaders are chosen: They are elected by their peers based not on ideology or even their public image, but largely because of personal ties, calculations of self-interest and accidents of geography.
Blunt and Boehner built their power bases through vast fundraising efforts and have links to Abramoff's associates and clients. Their ascent demonstrates how deeply DeLay's influence has reached into and reshaped the party: He has fostered an environment in which, in order to get ahead politically, lawmakers have had to aggressively raise money, contribute to other lawmakers and cultivate ties with the lobbyist and trade associations that line Washington's K Street corridor.
"Anybody at this level has gotten their hands dirty -- some more than others," said a Republican lobbyist who is close to both men and who did not want to be quoted discussing their ethics.
Blunt has close ties to DeLay. He owes his place in the leadership to the Texas Republican, who appointed Blunt his chief deputy whip in 1999, when he was only a second-term House member.
Although tensions and rivalries between the two men grew over time, their political fortunes and finances remained intertwined. Blunt's staff includes several former DeLay aides. Blunt's political action committee -- the Rely on Your Beliefs Fund -- employs the services of Jim Ellis, a top DeLay political advisor who, with the former majority leader, has been indicted in Texas on campaign money-laundering charges.
When Blunt's political action committee was formed, it hired Alexander Strategy Group to provide start-up services such as clerical work and fundraising. That group has such close ties to DeLay and Abramoff that it recently announced it was folding because of the bad publicity.
Blunt has his own links to the lobbying world. His former top aide, Gregg L. Hartley, is vice chairman of one of the largest lobby firms in Washington, Cassidy & Associates.
Blunt's wife is a lobbyist for Altria, the parent company for Philip Morris and Kraft, but she does not lobby the House. Blunt now says he would not work on an issue that would solely benefit the company. While they were dating, however, Blunt was heavily criticized in 2003 when it was disclosed that he had tried unsuccessfully, within hours of becoming House majority whip, to insert into a Homeland Security bill a provision that would have benefited Philip Morris.
Jessica Boulanger, Blunt's spokeswoman, said the lawmaker's relationships with lobbyists have been ethical and legal, and that his connections to the K Street community are not hurting his bid for leader.
Boehner, in contrast, is not close to DeLay. Indeed, the two have been rivals for years. When Boehner was ousted from a leadership post in 1998, it was by a DeLay-backed challenger, Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.).
Boehner is in many ways a caricature of an old-school politician: He smokes like a chimney, sports a perennial tan and loves to play golf.
As House Republican Conference chairman from 1995 to 1998, Boehner played a key role in the party's effort to systematically build stronger ties to businesses and lobbyists. It was an effort that included DeLay's vaunted "K Street Project" to encourage lobbying firms to hire Republicans.
Beginning soon after the GOP took control of Congress in 1995, Boehner held weekly meetings with about a dozen of the most powerful lobbyists in the speaker's suite in the Capitol.
He was heavily criticized in 1996 for distributing campaign checks from tobacco interests to colleagues on the House floor. It was not against the rules, but was said to be unseemly.
Even after he lost his leadership post, Boehner found ways to curry favor with his colleagues. He has donated $2.7 million to Republican colleagues and candidates since 1998, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
He has accepted donations from people with business before the panel he chairs, the Committee on Education and the Workforce. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a lobbyist for Sallie Mae -- a student loan agency overseen by Boehner's panel -- held a fundraiser for the lawmaker at her home.
Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith denied that the group had undue influence: He said Boehner opposed a major legislative proposal sought by Sallie Mae.
The Center for Responsive Politics has reported that Boehner received $32,500 in contributions from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff. But Boehner has said he had not been aware of any connections to the lobbyist.
Now he is trying to burnish his credentials as a reformer. He emphasizes his role in the early 1990s in a band of junior Republicans who helped expose the House bank scandal. Hundreds of lawmakers were found to have overdrawn their accounts at the in-house bank, without incurring penalties. Also, Boehner boasts that he has never sought pork barrel projects for his district.