WASHINGTON — Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri has emerged as the favorite in today's Republican vote for a new House majority leader, a contest that has been dominated by debate over the party's direction in the wake of ethics scandals.
Blunt, criticized by his challengers for his close ties to some of corporate America's most influential lobbyists, appeared to have overcome fears within the GOP that those relationships could embarrass the party in this election year.
Democrats have pledged to make what they call Washington's "culture of corruption" under Republican leadership a key campaign issue. Choosing Blunt as majority leader -- the House's No. 2 post -- would signal that most of the chamber's Republicans were more interested in stability than tapping a new face to rebut such charges.
Blunt is a longtime ally of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who gave up the majority leader's post in September after being charged with violating campaign finance laws in his home state. Blunt, the majority whip, has served as DeLay's temporary replacement.
A Blunt victory in today's vote also would underscore how the outcome of Capitol Hill's leadership races often are determined less by weighty issues of policy and vision and more by matters such as personal bonds, geographic loyalties and committee assignments.
Blunt and the two other candidates for majority leader -- John A. Boehner of Ohio and John Shadegg of Arizona -- have pledged to support efforts designed to put more distance between lawmakers and lobbyists.
The push for such efforts followed the guilty pleas entered in early January by lobbyist Jack Abramoff to charges of fraud and conspiracy to bribe lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides. Abramoff was closely linked to several top Republicans, including DeLay.
The House on Wednesday took its first step toward ethics reform sparked by the Abramoff scandal when it voted, 379 to 50, to ban from the chamber's floor and its gym former members who are lobbyists.
The new rule, sponsored by Republicans, also applies to spouses of current lawmakers -- meaning it affects Blunt's wife, who is a lobbyist.
Democrats and some Republicans derided the move as largely symbolic.
"I've spent time in the gym, and I've never been lobbied on things," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of the House GOP leadership who backs Shadegg in today's election.
Flake said he and some other Republicans were frustrated that the leadership seemed to think that "if we beat up on a few lobbyists, now we've got a clean system."
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said the new rule didn't "amount to a drop in the ocean."
But Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), chairman of the House Rules Committee, said it was a step needed to limit an unfair advantage for some lobbyists.
"We have a problem that needs to be addressed," he said.
Dreier also promised the measure was the first in what he said would be a comprehensive overhaul of rules for ethics and lobbying.
Blunt scored two crucial victories Wednesday that improved his chances in the leadership contest.
The first came when GOP lawmakers, meeting in private, rejected a move to broaden the election to include all the posts below Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) Some Republicans had argued that such votes were needed to demonstrate the party's commitment to charting a new course.
The decision to limit the election's scope was seen as boosting Blunt, who has portrayed himself as part of an experienced leadership team that can effectively promote the GOP's legislative agenda.
Later in the day, Republicans narrowly won a final floor vote on a budget-cutting bill that would have discredited Blunt as a strong leader had it been defeated.
A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the measure, which would cut federal spending for an array of domestic programs by more than $39 billion over the next five years. But Blunt and other GOP leaders lined up enough Republicans to pass the bill, 216 to 214.
The twin successes added to a momentum that had been building for Blunt since most of his GOP colleagues in the House returned to Washington this week to start a new congressional session.
Strategists for Blunt, Boehner and Shadegg cautioned that the secret-ballot vote for majority leader could yet produce an upset.
But even some supporters of Boehner, viewed as Blunt's strongest challenger, sounded discouraged Wednesday about their candidate's chances.
Asked whether he thought the election had come down to a two-man race between Blunt and Boehner, Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) said: "It's probably a one-person race."
Castle said many Republicans believed "there's been a problem" within the leadership ranks, but that "the problem has been excised" by DeLay deciding to permanently step aside as majority leader.
When he was indicted, DeLay said he expected to be quickly found innocent and that he then would attempt to reclaim his former job. But with his trial in Texas yet to begin, DeLay in early January said he had decided to abandon that plan.
Boehner emerged from Wednesday's three-hour meeting of House Republicans looking grim-faced. Asked what he intended to do the rest of the day, he replied tersely: "Make phone calls. Marshal my troops."
Blunt, in contrast, appeared buoyant as he laid out the week's agenda to reporters. And he was grinning broadly hours later, after the vote on the budget bill.
"It was a hard vote for our team," Blunt said. "If we hadn't won it, it would be a huge thing."