Blunt Has No Regrets

Posted June 18, 2003 at 6:25pm

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has hit the first rough patch of his six-month tenure as Majority Whip, a period that has been marked by his efforts to develop a distinctive leadership style and organization while tinkering with the structure of the Whip team and quietly cultivating his own power base in the House.

House GOP Members and aides gave the Missourian substantial credit for the party’s record so far in this Congress, pointing out that Blunt has helped to engineer several key legislative victories while not losing a single important vote.

At the same time, a recent spate of negative stories about Blunt has helped to sow tension between his office and those of his fellow GOP leaders, and some Republicans privately wonder whether he is fully invested in the Whip’s job or simply sees it as a stepping stone to something bigger.

Whatever rough patches Blunt hits, the most important measure of a Whip is his party’s performance at getting bills passed, and by that standard, Blunt and his team have been extremely effective.

“We get a report card every day around here,” said Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “We’ve been very pleased with the performance so far. If we win on the floor, it’s a good day.”

While Blunt has so far passed the legislative test, he now has to prove he can take a punch.

Fallout

Last week, The Washington Post reported on its front page that in November 2002, Blunt attempted to insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security.

Beyond the fact that the provision had not gone through the committee process or been vetted by other leaders, the move was significant because Blunt’s son, Andrew Blunt, is a lobbyist for Philip Morris in Missouri and because the lawmaker, who recently divorced, has a personal relationship with Abigail Perlman, a lobbyist for the company in Washington.

That story has led to several more in Missouri newspapers, most of them focused on Blunt’s relationship with Perlman. The issue has gotten particular attention in the state because another of the Whip’s sons, Matt Blunt, is running for governor.

Given that this is the first time Blunt has had to deal with a real spate of negative press, his fellow Republican leaders and other members of the GOP Conference have watched closely to see how he handles it.

The story has also prompted some Republicans to marvel privately at the audacity of Blunt’s move and wonder why he would take such a risk given his ties to Philip Morris. “It does make you scratch your head,” said a senior Republican lawmaker.

In an interview Wednesday, Blunt said he did not have any regrets about his actions in November and that it was not unusual for legislative provisions to be added at the last minute. “I think it was very much in the pattern of how we do things here,” he said.

Several Republican Members and aides said the primary reaction of Blunt and his staff to the revelations has been to mount an aggressive search — a few Members called it a “witch hunt” — for the source of the Post story.

Some of Blunt’s aides have trained their sites on several different lawmakers and offices who they believe are trying to undermine their boss. GOP sources said Blunt has been told by Members and others that his office needs to stop searching for the leak and move past the incident.

Blunt said he had given his staff a similar message. “[I’m] not going to spend five minutes trying to find the source of that story and I don’t want them to either,” he said.

One negative dynamic that predates the Philip Morris story is the subtle but persistent tension between Blunt’s office and DeLay’s.

By all accounts, the two leaders themselves get along well, as DeLay emphasized when he was asked about the issue during a meeting with reporters Tuesday.

“There is a rift being concocted by the press,” said DeLay. “Roy Blunt is doing a great job. He is a very close friend of mine. This leadership is working very well together, as evidenced by the product that we have been putting out for the last six months.”

While there may not be a rift between the two Members, there has been some bad blood between their staffs, with some Blunt aides resenting DeLay’s long shadow and some DeLay aides believing their successors don’t measure up.

“It’s very noticeable,” said a Republican lawmaker who has witnessed the tension first-hand, while another called it “disconcerting.”

“There’s been some adjusting to our new roles,” Blunt acknowledged. “There’s no doubt about that. … Our goal is for the staff to understand that we’re all part of the same team and we all work together.”

His Own Man

Some of the tension is a natural byproduct of Blunt’s efforts to be seen as something more than DeLay’s sidekick.

“I think he’s trying, as subtly as he can, to establish his own persona and m.o.,” said Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.).

Blunt’s most prominent declaration of independence so far was his surprise selection of Cantor to serve as Chief Deputy Whip when the race was thought to be between Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.).

Several Republican Members said they believed the choice of Cantor, who has received good marks for his performance so far, was an early step in Blunt’s effort to cultivate more lawmakers who are loyal first and foremost to him. The same could be said of Blunt’s decision to add a few more assistant Whips and Deputy Whips.

On the staff level, Blunt has shown a similarly independent streak. When the Missouri lawmaker’s longtime chief of staff, Gregg Hartley, announced he was leaving the Hill, Blunt pursued several different people with longtime leadership experience to replace him. But in the end, he chose David Hebert, a lobbyist with Missouri ties who, unlike the other candidates for the job, had never worked for another member of the Republican leadership.

However, no matter what Blunt does to establish his own identity, he can’t escape the comparisons to DeLay.

“It’s always difficult to fill another man’s shoes,” DeLay said in a brief interview Wednesday, adding that he thinks Blunt’s performance as Whip has been “outstanding.”

GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio), who is also a Deputy Whip, said it was natural for leaders to be measured against their predecessors. “We still talk about Denny Hastert in terms of being the [Chief] Deputy Whip,” she said.

At the same time, some of Blunt’s detractors wonder about what his real future ambitions are and whether they might interfere with his performance as Whip. DeLay allies grow particularly annoyed at the suggestion that Blunt might consider vaulting over the Texan to run for Speaker whenever Hastert retires.

“The Whip team is not just about building to the next step,” said a House Republican who has worked closely with both lawmakers. “You can’t put the cart before the horse.”

The Whip Operation

While Blunt may want to establish his own identity, much of his Whip operation is modeled after DeLay’s.

“I haven’t been able to tell a whole lot of difference in what I do and what Tom did,” said Blunt.

Perhaps the biggest change he has made has been to assign his Whips more specific areas of responsibility organized around different issues.

“I think he’s created a chance for each Deputy Whip to have their own portfolio,” said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), a Deputy Whip.

Blunt said he has also tried to work more closely with freshman lawmakers and to instill in all of his Whips the idea that they are leaders, reminding them that they are expected to always toe the party line on rules and other procedural votes.

The system has worked well, judging by the fact that the party has been able to pass the budget, tax cuts, medical liability, energy and other high-priority legislation.

“The best way to gauge success is by results,” said Rogers, whom Blunt made the Deputy Whip in charge of coalitions.

The biggest success for Blunt so far was the passage earlier this year of the fiscal 2004 budget. The Missouri lawmaker worked the issue very hard, and Republicans involved in the effort said that Blunt never wavered from his belief that the bill would pass even when other leaders were having some doubts.

“That was a personal victory for him because he quarterbacked the effort,” said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).