WASHINGTON – Reps. Roy Blunt and John Boehner, rivals in the race to succeed Majority Leader Tom DeLay, both claimed progress Monday and released the names of supporters to prove it.
The two men maneuvered for support as Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia claimed the votes needed to move up the leadership ladder when elections are held early next month.
"He has 140 firm commitments for majority whip," said Cantor's spokesman, Rob Collins. He declined to provide a list.
Cantor has been serving as deputy whip under Blunt. Not to be deterred, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., announced he would run for the office of majority whip in the event Blunt were to win the majority leader's race.
The developments unfolded as House Republicans struggled to avoid political damage from an election-year corruption scandal.
DeLay, under indictment on campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas, announced Saturday that he would not attempt to regain the leadership post he temporarily left when he was charged. He made his decision under pressure from fellow Republicans reacting to lobbyist Jack Abramoff's recent guilty pleas on federal conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud charges in a congressional influence-peddling investigation.
The leadership campaign will be fought mostly by telephone as Blunt and Boehner track down colleagues scattered on an extended holiday break. The vote is slated when lawmakers return to Washington the week of Jan. 30.
Boehner issued a list of 13 supporters. Blunt countered with 22 names, but it appeared the race was still in its early phases.
"We've had a tough run recently, some of it of our own making," Boehner wrote fellow Republicans in a letter declaring his candidacy. "But I also believe that if we are able to renew our energy and our commitment to our basic principles, the best is yet to come."
Blunt made a similar observation in a letter appealing for votes. "Unfortunately, the recent scandals have caused some to question whether we have lost our vision and whether the faith they have placed in us is justified," he wrote.
"While I have no doubt that it is, it will be difficult to move forward ... until we regain the trust and confidence of our constituents by enacting new lobbying reforms and enhanced penalties."
The majority leader's post is central to advancing the GOP agenda on Capitol Hill, and it could be a stepping stone to eventually succeeding Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Blunt said that despite setbacks such as Hurricane Katrina and the Abramoff lobbying scandal, "our conference performed well as a team, racking up impressive legislative accomplishments" during his time as DeLay's stand-in.
Blunt, 55, began his leadership career as a protege of DeLay, who named him a deputy whip in 1999.
His voting record reflects the priorities of the GOP majority that he helps lead, including opposition to abortion, support for tax cuts and approval for the landmark Medicare prescription drug benefit legislation that passed during President Bush's first term.
Blunt drew grumbling from some Republicans late last year after taking over temporarily for DeLay. The leadership was forced to make concessions to moderates to pass a deficit-reduction bill, then found it was still short of votes. Also, a bill to cut social spending was defeated.
"We kind of just muddled along," and Hastert had to step in to rescue the party's agenda, said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill.
By year's end, however, both bills had cleared the House, allowing Blunt to say he had overcome significant obstacles while handling two jobs at once.
Blunt's election could largely cement the current leadership structure, even as some Republicans are calling out for sweeping change in the way the party does its business. Deputy Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., hopes to succeed Blunt in the No. 3 job as whip.
"We need dramatic change and real reform," said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz.
Boehner, 56, is no stranger to leadership positions. He rose quickly in GOP ranks after his election to Congress in 1990. After Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, he was elected head of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 position in the party.
Boehner was ousted from that job in 1998, however, following the party's poor performance in elections that year. He has instead chaired the Education and the Workforce Committee since 2001, and he played a lead role in passing President Bush's No Child Left Behind education bill.
In the years since, he has worked among Republicans and at times across party lines to compile a record of legislative accomplishment. Most recently, a last-minute compromise with the United Auto Workers union paved the way for bipartisan passage of pension legislation that Blunt had told reporters would not be on the year-end agenda.
Speaker Hastert promised to "move forward aggressively and quickly to have the House of Representatives address lobbying reform." He planned to return to Washington on Tuesday to oversee the effort along with Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif.
Several lobbying overhaul proposals have already been drafted. The greatest momentum is likely behind the proven team of John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chris Shays, R-Conn., who shepherded the 2001 campaign finance reform into law over objections from House and Senate GOP leaders like DeLay.
The McCain-Shays plan, among other provisions, requires faster reporting of spending on lobbying and greater disclosure of lobbying activities. It also calls for increased disclosure of travel arranged or financed by lobbyists, and require lawmakers to pay fair market value for travel on private aircraft and tickets to sporting or entertainment events.