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GOP ousts Blunt as majority leader

Boehner elected to leadership role

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (left) and his predecessor, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, after yesterday’s vote.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (left) and his predecessor, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, after yesterday’s vote. (Getty Images Photo / Chip Somodevilla)

WASHINGTON -- In a clear sign that they're worried about the direction of the Republican Party, House GOP members ousted acting majority leader Roy Blunt, the chamber's second in command, and replaced him with Representative John A. Boehner, an Ohio conservative who has promised to crack down on pet projects inserted into bills at the request of lobbyists and lawmakers.

The hand-picked successor of embattled former majority leader Tom DeLay, Blunt was rejected by members who felt he was too closely associated with DeLay, one of Capitol Hill's most powerful politicians. DeLay is under indictment on charges relating to campaign finance irregularities in Texas and is linked to a scandal involving Jack Abramoff, a once influential GOP lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges.

Boehner, 56, has close ties to lobbyists as well, but he has criticized the House GOP leadership, particularly for its profligate spending. He has made it a point of pride to have never dealt in so-called earmarks -- special budget projects lobbyists want from lawmakers -- during his eight terms in the House, and he has vowed to limit the practice.

''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," Boehner said shortly after yesterday's election. The majority leader is the top deputy to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and sets the legislative agenda.

Blunt's defeat reflects the deepening angst within the Republican Party about ethics headaches and soaring federal spending. Members hope that Boehner -- who helped close the scandal-plagued House Bank during the 1990s and has worked with Democrats as education committee chairman -- will bring fresh energy and focus to the GOP agenda.

''We're going to turn a leaf in the book of history here," said Representative Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican who helped oust DeLay from leadership. ''We have an opportunity now to develop an agenda with new, strong, active, energetic leaders."

With Democrats' plans to highlight the GOP scandals to help them retake the House this year, Republicans saw Blunt's ties to DeLay as particularly troublesome.

Blunt and DeLay have shuttled large sums to each other's political action committees, and Blunt has been a key player in the ''K Street Project," Delay's plan to press lobbyists into hiring more Republicans. In addition, Blunt's wife, Abigail Perlman, lobbies for the Altria Group Inc., owners of tobacco giant Philip Morris.

''Blunt's a good man, but he couldn't overcome the relationship to DeLay," said Representative Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who was dismissed as House ethics chairman after his committee formally admonished DeLay in 2004. ''While people wouldn't challenge DeLay -- [they] were afraid to do that -- [Boehner's election] shows that they're trying to get as far away from him as we can."

But Democrats pointed out that Boehner has his own history of questionable contacts with lobbyists. In 1995 Boehner handed out checks from tobacco lobbying groups to colleagues on the House floor, a legal practice but an affront to House decorum. Boehner recently called it a ''big mistake."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Boehner's own political action committee raked in $32,500 from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff. And when many other politicians rushed to distance themselves from Abramoff by giving back his campaign donations or giving it to charity, Boehner refused to follow suit.

In a press release, the Democratic National Committee branded Boehner a ''lobbyist lapdog," who will bring ''more of the same" as DeLay. ''Clearly, House Republicans are more concerned with papering over their ethics scandals" than in ending corruption, DNC Chairman Howard Dean said in the statement.

But Republicans said Boehner campaigned for majority leader on a promise to reform ethics and lobbying laws and trim the ''pork" from federal spending bills.

''Roy clearly is for the status quo," said Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican. ''John Boehner, in my opinion, more clearly represents a change of understanding, that we must get to the point where what we sell, we deliver."

Because he was supported by Hastert's allies, most observers expected Blunt would succeed DeLay, and Blunt recently declared he had more than the 117 votes he'd need to win.

On the first ballot, Blunt took the lead but fell short of the goal, with Boehner second and Representative John B. Shadegg of Arizona a distant third. But Shadegg dropped out before the second ballot, and nearly all of his supporters backed Boehner, handing him the victory.

Blunt will remain as majority whip, his party's vote-counter. Boehner wrapped an arm around his shoulder after the election.

In Boehner, Republicans picked a telegenic, popular leader who served two terms as House Republican Conference Chairman in the mid-1990s. Since then, the Cincinnati-area lawmaker has been a presence in the Speaker's Lobby near the House floor, smoking and bantering with other lawmakers and reporters.

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