WASHINGTON -- When Roy Blunt entered the Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building at noon last Thursday, he was sure he had enough votes from fellow Republican House members to be elected majority leader. He probably would have won had it not been for what was said by two dissimilar congressmen: Bill Thomas of California and Mark Souder of Indiana.
Thomas seldom deigns to descend from his olympian heights as House Ways and Means Committee chairman. Accordingly, his colleagues were surprised when he rose to imply that Blunt had not made the trains run on time as acting majority leader. Souder, a backbench bomb thrower for 11 years in the House, suggested that the election of Blunt could ratify the Democratic indictment of the GOP as the party of corruption.
The speeches by Thomas and Souder built concern that Blunt's election would signal that Republicans really want nothing to change. Blunt would have continued the promotion from within for Republican leadership of a select circle of insiders intimately connected to the K Street lobbyist community. Blunt's campaign exuded an aura of entitlement, especially when he declined to appear with his opponents on Sunday televised interview programs.
That Thomas might influence the House Republican Conference is counterintuitive. While regarded as the House's smartest member and most effective committee chairman, the former political science professor has made few friends during 27 years in Congress and was not part of the leadership elite. He was not involved in maneuvers to succeed the indicted Tom DeLay as majority leader and had made no commitment to any candidate as of last Wednesday. But Thomas that night told a Ways and Means colleague he would deliver the nominating speech for Rep. John Boehner, challenger to the heavily favored Blunt.
Thomas's speech backed Boehner as a fellow committee chairman who appreciated present shortcomings in House operations. Thomas has complained that tax legislation approved by Ways and Means last October still had not passed last week. Thomas praised Boehner's chairmanship of the Education and Workforce Committee, where he had picked himself up after being dumped as House Republican Conference chairman following the 1998 elections.
Souder can claim even fewer friends in Congress than Thomas. An ardent conservative and evangelical Christian, Souder has been a hair shirt for Republican leaders since his election in the famous Class of '94. His nominating speech for Rep. John Shadegg, running for majority leader on a platform of conservative reform, moved his colleagues.