WASHINGTON – Republicans are counting on their new House leader, John Boehner, to help defuse an ethics scandal as the clock ticks toward November congressional elections.
Boehner of Ohio replaces Rep. Tom DeLay, who had to step down as majority leader after being indicted on campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas and tarred by his association with a scandal-scarred lobbyist. To win the seat, Boehner defeated a close DeLay ally who had been filling in as acting majority leader, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri.
"I feel like the dog who caught the car," Boehner, whose name is pronunced BAY'-nur, said Friday at the first meeting of Republican leaders following his election by GOP members a day earlier. He said he planned to "focus our efforts on the issues that the American people care about," mentioning jobs and making GOP-backed tax cuts permanent.
"It's a brand new day for the Republican leadership," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
On Thursday, Boehner said, "I think our members wanted obviously to make a big decision, and they did.
"I think what you're going to see us do is rededicate ourselves to dealing with issues," he said. "Big issues that the American people expect us to deal with, in terms of trying to improve their incomes, their prospects for jobs, and to provide better security for Americans all over this country."
Blunt, who had been favored to win the contest, retains his post as GOP whip, third-ranking in the leadership behind Boehner and Hastert. "Life goes on," Blunt shrugged after the vote.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas of California told fellow Republicans before the vote that Boehner was "a bridge to the old Revolution days," when the GOP stood for political change, according to Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
In 1995, Boehner was the chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 position in the leadership. Boehner used that position to craft the GOP message and improve Republican ties to businesses and lobbyists.
In 1998, Republicans suffered losses at the polls that shrank their majority. Boehner was a casualty of the upheaval, losing his leadership post to a new face, then-Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, the chambers' only black Republican.
Now Boehner, a 56-year-old veteran of 15 years in Congress, is back, reclaiming a powerful leadership post after the most-contested election among House Republicans since the upheavals that followed the 1998 ethics allegations and election losses.
Republicans are at a political crossroads again, with the November midterm elections dead ahead, as they work to avoid the taint of scandal from investigations that have already led to the conviction and resignation of Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif. In addition, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, faces scrutiny in a wide-ranging congressional corruption investigation symbolized by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Boehner campaigned as a candidate of reform, and said his experience as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee had demonstrated his ability to pass major legislation.
As majority leader, Boehner's first challenge will be to work with Hastert to find consensus on legislation designed to curtail the influence of lobbyists in Congress. Beyond that, he said in a statement Republicans "must take the necessary steps to get the federal budget under control — to cut wasteful spending, reform our entitlement programs and craft a budget process that encourages fiscal discipline.
"And we must recommit ourselves to reducing the influence of government in our lives."
Blunt's position as temporary majority leader had made him the front-runner, but he ended seven votes short of the necessary majority on a first-round secret ballot. He had 110 votes and Boehner had 79, followed by Shadegg with 40 and Rep. Jim Ryun of Kansas, who was not an announced candidate, with two.
After Shadegg and Ryun dropped out, Boehner won his second-ballot victory, defeating Blunt on a 122-109 vote.
Boehner cast himself as an outsider, better positioned to revive Republican spirits and political fortunes in the wake of the Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Democrats watched with interest, ready to pounce on the winner.
"No matter who Republicans elect, it's easy to show they're supporting more of the same ... part of the same pay-to-play system that's made Washington the mess that it is right now," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the House Democratic campaign organization.
Boehner came to Congress when Democrats held a majority, and he joined the Gang of Seven, a group of energetic young lawmakers eager to draw attention to a scandal involving the House bank and Democrats. He won a place in leadership when Republicans gained a majority in 1994, a position that kept him in frequent contact with lobbyists.
But he and DeLay soon clashed, and Boehner lost his leadership post four years later. As chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Boehner helped shepherd President Bush's No Child Left Behind education bill through the House. Bush in 2002 traveled to Boehner's district on Ohio's western border with Indiana to sign that education measure into law.