GOP’s Uneasy New Order

Posted September 30, 2005 at 6:45pm

House Republicans left town for a brief recess Friday after taking initial steps to formalize their revamped leadership structure in the wake of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) vacating the Majority Leader post.

GOP leaders spent Friday morning huddled in Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) office attempting to hammer out the details of the new power-sharing arrangement necessitated by the elevation of Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to temporarily replace DeLay.

Hastert and Blunt met alone early Friday and then were joined by the rest of the leadership, including DeLay and Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), to discuss the logistics of the setup.

Afterward, the leaders expressed confidence that the new hierarchy would work smoothly and would not derail the GOP’s agenda.

“We’ve always had a very cohesive leadership team,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “This is unchartered territory but everyone understands that we all need to pitch in and help.”

Under the arrangement, Blunt will handle all of the duties of the Majority Leader post as they are codified in House rules, including scheduling the floor and participating in colloquies. Dreier will chair the weekly meetings of committee chairmen previously handled by DeLay and also will play a role in crafting the legislative agenda.

On the staff level, all of DeLay’s current leadership aides — now led by Brett Loper following the previously scheduled departure last week of Chief of Staff Tim Berry — will remain in the Majority Leader’s office with the exception of the scheduler, who has moved over to DeLay’s personal office in the Cannon House Office Building.

Those remaining aides will technically work for Blunt, though leadership sources said DeLay’s floor staff largely would be supervised by Dreier on a day-to-day basis. Aides in the Majority Leader’s office will not receive orders from Blunt’s current Whip staff.

DeLay, meanwhile, does not currently have a committee assignment or leadership title but is expected by Members and aides to retain a large role in setting the strategic direction of the Republican Conference. He also will retain his driver and security detail unless the Capitol Police eventually decide he no longer needs one.

While the new structure is still untested, leadership aides and Members said after the initial shock of Wednesday’s events they were largely able to put the uncertainty aside and resume their normal duties.

“People are looking for confusion and chaos that just isn’t there,” said a leadership staffer. “We’re still operating as we always have from a staff capacity. The staff is still doing whatever their job was [before].”

Another leadership aide said Friday that the fact that the House will meet for only two days this week and will be off all next week will give Republicans time to cement their new roles.

“There’s a lot of logistics to work out and the leadership is trying to be very deliberative about this,” the aide said. “There doesn’t need to be a true rush today to figure this out.”

Even as Republican leaders were attempting to formalize their new responsibilities, the possibility first raised Wednesday that a new round of elections could be held in January appeared to be hardening into conventional wisdom among rank-and-file lawmakers.

Several Members and aides said the understanding that the leadership roster could be revisited in January was the primary reason that Blunt’s elevation was approved unanimously by voice vote at Wednesday’s emergency conference meeting.

Members said afterward that they would respect the judgment of Hastert and Blunt in the short term for the sake of unity, but that in the long term regular order should prevail.

“At some point down the line, the Conference should be allowed to express its will,” said Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Shadegg (Ariz.).

While some reports suggested that Hastert made a key concession by agreeing to allow new leadership elections if 50 GOP Members signed a letter asking for them, in fact it has been a longstanding Conference rule that 50 lawmakers can ask for a Conference meeting at any time on any subject they choose.

Once that Conference meeting is called, a majority of members can then move to hold a new round of leadership elections.

“We have an interesting run-up period here” to January, said a senior Republican leadership aide, who said the next three months would allow the Conference to “test out” the new power structure before deciding whether to support more permanent changes in the leadership lineup.

Whether new votes are held in January is largely dependent on the legal and public relations status of DeLay at that point. If he appears headed toward exoneration and a possible return to the Majority Leader post, then another election would likely be viewed as a worthless exercise. Widespread Conference support for another round of balloting would signal that Members believe DeLay is out of the leadership for good.

“We’re all hoping that this will be a very temporary situation,” said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean. “The Conference has discussed revisiting this in January should this temporary situation not be resolved by then.”

If there are new elections in January, it remained unclear last week who would run in them. Aside from Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who has announced his intention to run for Majority Whip but is given little chance of succeeding by his colleagues, no contenders were willing to tip their hands amid last week’s uncertainty.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), a former Conference chairman, has made little secret of his desire to return to leadership but made no effort to attain that goal during Wednesday’s shuffle. And he may be similarly hesitant to challenge Blunt for Majority Leader in January unless the Missourian stumbles badly before then.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) could not realistically leave his current post before this election cycle is over.

In the next three months, Blunt will have to deal with a host of difficult issues, including budget reconciliation and immigration reform, in an environment in which Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are on the defensive. All the while, Blunt will know he could theoretically be kicked back down the ladder at any time.

As one sympathetic leadership aide put it, “Who would want that job?”

And even if a new Majority Leader were elected in January, that lawmaker would only run the Conference for roughly nine months in a challenging election year before Congress recesses and yet another round of balloting is held in January 2007.