Could Blunt Be the Next One in Line?

Posted January 23, 2003 at 7:01pm

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) doesn’t like to discuss the raw ambition behind his affable demeanor and 30 years in politics.

But he is in fact intensely ambitious and has sought to move up in the House Republicans’ ranks of since the day he arrived in Washington a little more than six years ago.

When he was first elected to the House in 1996, Blunt wanted to jump-start his House career by running for Republican freshman class president. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who makes a habit of cultivating talented junior Members, warned Blunt against it.

The better bet, DeLay told him, was to seek a seat on the powerful but little-known Republican Steering Committee, which doles out committee assignments and chairmanship gavels. Blunt would then be in a position to collect the political chits he would need to rise through the ranks.

That advice set Blunt in good stead and eventually led to his election late last year to the No. 3 leadership post, when DeLay moved up to Majority Leader. Now, in just his fourth term, GOP observers are already mentioning Blunt as a possible successor to DeLay — or Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — if and when either steps aside.

Blunt tries to downplay any suggestion that he is running for Speaker.

“I didn’t come to Congress with any particular agenda,” Blunt said in an interview. “I never imagined that I would get to do the things I’ve gotten to as quickly as I have.”

But already this year, Blunt successfully spearheaded a campaign to change the House rule eliminating the eight-year term limit on the Speaker position. The move only fueled speculation about his own designs on the job, even though it was well-received and passed easily through the House.

“I really have no long-term plans,” Blunt insisted. “I don’t think you benefit from having that kind of plan in politics — what you’re going to do next driving how you treat Members.”

Blunt said he secretly worried he was too old when he came to Congress to become a serious player on Capitol Hill, despite his extensive experience in Missouri politics.

“I was 47,” he noted. “Frankly, I thought I was probably too old based on the seniority system to ever stay here long enough to have an impact beyond what you have in your district. I never would have guessed we would be where we are today.”

The comments suggest a delicate diplomacy Blunt has honed during his political career. Although a few accidental leaders are anointed from time to time, the more beaten path to power is through careful planning and relationship building, skills that Blunt has demonstrated in spades during his relatively short House tenure.

“Roy Blunt thinks he is the best possible person to be in charge of whatever he is doing,” said one lawmaker who has worked closely with Blunt over the past several years. “He has this fire in the belly to be the top dog and I don’t think he’ll ever really be satisfied being anything less.”

After Blunt’s pivotal 1996 meeting with DeLay, the Missouri Republican went on to win a seat on the GOP Steering panel. Two years later, Blunt was rewarded with a spot on the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, a plum assignment for a junior lawmaker.

But even more importantly, Blunt had taken the first steps in forging a critical alliance with DeLay, widely regarded even by his critics as one of the most skillful Whips in the history of Congress.

After former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) resigned his post in late 1998, DeLay stunned colleagues by choosing Blunt over several other candidates as his Chief Deputy Whip. Blunt replaced Hastert, who had secured the Speaker’s gavel following the political meltdown of former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.).

With an important seat at the leadership table, Blunt carefully began building a network of friends and allies within the GOP Conference while growing ever closer to DeLay. Blunt and his top aide, Greg Hartley, also quietly began plotting the Missourian’s own run for an elected leadership post. Blunt never openly campaigned for anything, simply preparing to be ready for any opportunity that came his way.

Starting in early 2000, Blunt started keeping a detailed list of who would back him in a bid for leadership at the same time he was raising his national profile as the House liaison to Bush’s presidential campaign. Blunt’s tally showed he could win a majority among House Republicans against any potential contender for a senior post.

Following DeLay’s lead, Blunt has become a prolific fundraiser, which has helped fuel his rise. This past cycle, he led the Battleground 2002 effort, which raised tens of millions of dollars for incumbents.

When former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) announced his intentions to retire in December 2001, and DeLay had made the decision to seek Armey’s job, Blunt was ready to succeed DeLay.

Using the DeLay model of overwhelming opponents by working with lightning speed to line up support, Blunt quickly wrapped up the votes to become Majority Whip. Potential rivals for the Whip post hesitated and were out-maneuvered even before they had finished considering their options.

On the day the GOP leadership elections were held in November 2002, Blunt was approved unanimously. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), the only lawmaker to briefly mount a challenge to Blunt, gave the nominating speech for his one-time opponent.

While Blunt downplays having any desire to move further up the leadership ladder, GOP insiders say the Missouri Republican, along with GOP Leadership Chairman Rob Portman (Ohio) and Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), the new chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, represent the vanguard of the next generation of GOP leaders.

Just five years ago, few could have predicted that Gingrich would step down and Hastert would end up wielding the gavel. So, in reality, anyone of the main GOP players could rocket to the top under the right circumstances, with Blunt, by virtue of his influential Whip post, having the inside track in that group.

For instance, when it looked like there was a chance recently that GOP Policy Committee Chairman Chris Cox (Calif.) could leave the No. 5 leadership slot as part of a deal that would grant him the Government Reform gavel, Portman lined up a campaign team and the votes to secure the elected position. But outgoing National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) was selected to chair Government Reform and Cox was tapped for the new Select Committee on Homeland Security and decided to hang onto his Policy Committee job after all.

“It wasn’t a vote on Portman, it was just the way the cards fell,” explained Rep. John Shadegg (Ariz.), who chaired Portman’s unofficial campaign for the job. “Portman was only preparing in case there was an opening. Chris Cox is doing a great job but if he had [given up the post], we had indications that getting the votes wouldn’t be difficult.”

Portman took the turn of events in stride.

“I would love to have had the opportunity to have additional resources to work for the team,” he said. “But I realize how fortunate I am to have the job I do as chairman of the leadership. I view my role as a facilitator — to help formulate the President’s proposals once they’re on the Hill.”

Rapid success breeds jealously and Blunt, as well as Portman and Reynolds, is not without his share of detractors in the GOP Conference. These critics privately grouse that the new Whip has risen too far too fast, and portray him as nothing more than a DeLay clone.

“I think Roy has really tied his career in the House to Tom,” one GOP lawmaker said. “I think their futures are somewhat tied together — people see him as DeLay’s guy.”

That perception has helped propel Blunt’s career, but such a close association with DeLay has inevitable pitfalls. Those DeLay has alienated along the way may transfer any resentment toward the hard-edged Texan onto Blunt.

“Blunt is largely untested,” another GOP lawmaker argued. “He’ll need to build a coalition that is at least perceived to be outside of DeLay’s own circle of influence.”

Other House Republicans reject the notion that Blunt has failed to develop an image apart from DeLay.

“Blunt is his own man,” said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), a member of the whip team. “He came to Congress, worked hard and understood how to take the temperature of Members. He doesn’t harass but has a very easy way of working with us — that’s why he’s known as the velvet glove.”

Blunt’s success comes despite some recent personal difficulties. Last year he announced he was seeking a divorce from his wife of 35 years. He also suffered a recent cancer scare, and eventually had to have a kidney removed last July. But in typical fashion, the Missouri Republican allowed himself just a short recovery time before returning to work, campaigning and fundraising on behalf of his colleagues.

Blunt has nothing but praise for DeLay, although GOP insiders say they will now be interested to see if Blunt is able to move beyond the imposing shadow of his colleague.

“Anybody who works in the building today or who has worked in it for the last 30 years would say, some grudgingly, some admiringly, that Tom DeLay has been the best Whip in the history of the Congress. And I agree with that,” Blunt said. “I am going to be greatly advantaged that Tom … is going to be Majority Leader, and the best Deputy Whip is going to be Speaker. I’m not worried about anything.”

Blunt and his aides know that DeLay’s decision to pluck him out of relative back-bench obscurity and make him his top deputy was the turning point in his Congressional career. Blunt said he never lobbied for the job, and didn’t even know he was a candidate for the position until he read it in the newspaper.

“It was literally the furthest thing from my mind,” Blunt said.

“I’m grateful that Tom DeLay gave me a chance to do that job because there were 200 Members who outranked me in terms of seniority at that time. And I think it worked.”

In fact, the relationship worked so well that when it came time to choose his own Chief Deputy, Blunt also surprised colleagues by tapping sophomore Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the only Jewish Republican in the House, who wasn’t on the short list of most GOP insiders.

As for the dynamic between the top three House Republicans, Blunt rejected any talk of rivalry or tension within the troika, suggesting that three lawmakers have forged a bond that is unprecedented in his view.

Yet, other lawmakers argue if Blunt truly craves the Speaker’s gavel, he will have no choice but to challenge his greatest mentor, DeLay, for the post. With the threat of Democrats regaining control of Congress always looming, if Blunt doesn’t act when the opportunity knocks, he may miss his chance.

“I would think that Blunt would show some loyalty to Tom,” one lawmaker predicted. “But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t beat him. This whole notion that anybody is invincible and indispensable on the Hill really isn’t true.”

Others, however, believe DeLay is not going anywhere, truly wants to occupy the top spot himself, and would serve as a significant obstacle to Blunt’s elevation to Speaker.

“I don’t subscribe to this notion that someday Tom DeLay is going to implode,” one Republican said. “I don’t think Tom’s going to follow in the footsteps of Newt Gingrich in terms of his career. I think he’s got some good people around him. He understands the system better and is adjusting to his new role. The Tom DeLay of today is not the Tom DeLay of 10 years ago.”

Any House Republican reordering hinges on Hastert’s plans, and those closest to the Speaker are talking up his longevity.

“He enjoys what he’s doing because he’s making progress on issues important to the country,” Portman said. “He loves working with this president, and I think he will stay around for quite a while.”