January 14, 2006
The GOP Leadership Shuffle

By Charlie Cook

Sometimes, 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.

House Republicans, 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.

Longtime 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.

Neither candidate 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 substantive issue.

Even Blunt’s 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.

Because of 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 Hastert.

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.

Senate Majority 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.

Lott’s 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.

Charlie Cook's "Off To The Races" is published each Tuesday by National Journal. For more information about National Journal Group's publications, go to http://www.nationaljournal.com/about/

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