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Not the Majority Leader They Expected

John A. Boehner defeats front-runner Roy Blunt as the party seeks to show a strong commitment to ethics reform.

February 03, 2006|Mary Curtius and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In choosing Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio as the new House majority leader Thursday, Republicans sought to put a new face on a party reeling from scandals and worried about maintaining its congressional majority.

In an upset, Boehner won a tense closed-door vote that went to a second ballot.

Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the acting majority leader, had been favored to win the election. But Republicans wanting to signal a strong GOP commitment to ethics reform coalesced behind Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner).

"In the end ... we needed a course correction," Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said.

With his victory, Boehner becomes the front-runner to succeed House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) if Republicans remain in control of the chamber after the 2008 elections, when it is widely expected that Hastert will retire.

Thursday's vote was a crushing defeat for Blunt, 56, whose close ties to the former majority leader, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, were seen as a political liability. DeLay stepped down from his party post in September after a Texas grand jury indicted him on money-laundering charges.

"Today, we put the DeLay era behind us, and we start a new era," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), an early Boehner supporter.

In campaigning for the House's No. 2 post, Boehner pledged to lead efforts to overhaul its rules to put more distance between lawmakers and lobbyists -- relationships that DeLay cultivated for the GOP.

But some critics quickly cast doubt on Boehner's credentials as a reformer, saying he could be hindered by his connections to special interest groups.

Boehner's win over Blunt "was a selection of Tweedledum over Tweedledee," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit group advocating ethics reforms.

In brief comments after the election, Boehner said House Republicans would "rededicate ourselves to dealing with big issues that the American people expect us to deal with," such as job growth and national security.

As majority leader, he is responsible for securing House passage of the GOP agenda -- a task that could prove difficult. Since DeLay's departure as majority leader, rifts among House Republicans have widened.

Blunt, standing next to Boehner, spoke of his loss, telling reporters: "Believe me, the world goes on."

He will retain his job as majority whip, the House's No. 3 leadership position.

The show of unity between Boehner and Blunt followed a session that members said was tense and emotional.

In the first round of voting, Blunt got 110 votes -- just short of the 117 he needed to win. Boehner garnered 79 votes and Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona had 40. Rep. Jim Ryun of Kansas, who was not an announced candidate, received two votes.

Shadegg and Ryun withdrew, setting up a one-on-one race.

"I was biting my nails, even though I wasn't a candidate," said Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa).

Blunt and Boehner pointedly chatted together during the tally, according to those inside the room. But Boehner choked up with emotion when it was announced that he had won, 122 to 109.

The shift in votes from Shadegg to Boehner on the second ballot "was like a tsunami," LaHood said. "The people who voted for Shadegg, who I said were the real reformers, believed that Boehner was going to be the reformer they were looking for" once the Arizonan withdrew, he said.

Boehner has promised to crack down on "earmarks" -- projects slipped into spending bills, often with little scrutiny, that can steer tens of millions of dollars to members' districts.

Some lawmakers have argued that earmarks fuel corruption on Capitol Hill, and Boehner has said proudly that he has never sought them for his district. He has said that though he would not seek to eliminate the practice, he would require members to defend the earmarks they seek.

This week, Boehner criticized some of Hastert's ideas for overhauling ethics and lobbying rules, saying lawmakers should not be treated like children. Boehner told reporters that instead of banning privately funded trips and tightening gift rules, as Hastert has proposed, he favored stricter reporting rules and greater transparency and oversight of the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists.

Boehner is known as an effective chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, able to work with Democrats on the committee to pass important legislation. In that role, he helped President Bush's No Child Left Behind education bill become law in 2002.

His selection as majority leader capped a dramatic political comeback for Boehner, a former chairman of the House Republican conference who lost that position in 1998 and who reportedly told friends he was considering retiring if he lost Thursday's race.

Still, if the party does not fare well in the November election under Boehner's leadership, his tenure in office may be brief.

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