individuals make decisions voluntarily; other times, decisions
are forced upon them. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s
decision to permanently relinquish his leadership post and Senate
Majority Leader Bill Frist’s decision to depart at the end
of the year will force congressional Republicans to make choices
about significant changes in Hill leadership.
of course, must soon choose a permanent successor toDeLay. The
prime contenders are acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri,
the majority whip; and Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman
John Boehner of Ohio. Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona might jump
in, but he would be a distinct underdog.
House-watchers expect the race to be very close, although Blunt,
as the semi-incumbent, starts with an edge and is thought to have
the tacit support of Speaker Dennis Hastert and those who want
to move up into the whip position. (If Blunt loses the race for
majority leader, he remains his party’s whip.) While no
fresh face, Boehner, having served as House Republican Conference
Chairman from 1995 until 1998, is positioning himself as the candidate
closer to the spirit of the GOP revolution of 1994, which swept
the party into power.
is significantly more or less conservative than the other or,
for that matter, more or less tied to K Street. Both men are known
quantities within their conference. Personalities and members’
comfort levels will drive the race’s outcome more than any
supporters have a hard time denying that in the months since DeLay
stepped down, House floor action has not been a pretty sight.
But Blunt’s critics have an equally difficult time arguing
with the reality that any acting majority leader coming into the
job under such circumstances would have faced an extremely difficult
challenge. Blunt had little power to threaten or cajole committee
chairmen or other members, or to withhold goodies from them—particularly
with the prospect of a leadership election just around the corner.
the affection that many Republican lawmakers have for Hastert,
they have voiced little public criticism of his failure to demonstrate
real leadership after DeLay was politically decapitated by the
indictments in his home state of Texas. Privately, though, House
Republicans voice a great deal of disappointment in the affable
On the other
side of the Capitol, Frist is not seeking re-election, which means
that Senate Republicans must pick a replacement to lead them in
the next Congress. Frist’s every move is scrutinized for
its impact on his expected 2008 White House bid, and GOP disappointment
in his leadership is pronounced. The Tennessean is widely seen
as demonstrating poor political judgment and as having been unprepared
to take over from his predecessor, Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Lott was forced to step down after making racially insensitive
remarks about Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign
at a party celebrating the South Carolinian’s 100th birthday.
Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will almost certainly step up
one rung to become majority leader, assuming that the Republicans
keep control of the Senate after November. Who would become whip
is anybody’s guess. The No. 3 Republican in the Senate is
Pennsylvanian Rick Santorum, who is in a decidedly uphill struggle
for re-election. Lott is expected to announce soon whether he
will run for a fourth term this year. He would make a very plausible
candidate for whip.
Mississippi home was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, and his decision
on whether to run again is a difficult one. While it would be
in his financial interest to leave the Senate, the possibility
of vindication two years after being the victim of a coup is a
powerful incentive to stay. Two of the men who orchestrated Lott’s
downfall— Frist and President Bush—have since seen
their own political fortunes sag. And many Republicans on Capitol
Hill are wishing that “ol’ Trent” was back in
charge of the Senate.
Cook's "Off To The Races" is published each Tuesday
by National Journal.
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