Why Blunt lost

Robert Novak
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Posted: Feb 06, 2006 12:05 AM

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.

"If these elections come back with the same top leadership," Souder declared, "we will be telling the American people that we have not changed -- that the rest of the world has shifted but we have not." Much the same message was delivered in the conference by two other Shadegg supporters, Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Charles Bass of New Hampshire.

Shadegg was the true reform candidate. Unlike Boehner, Shadegg was free of K Street taint. But Boehner at least provides the change in leadership demanded by Souder. He also opposes and never had utilized earmarks, which Blunt and the rest of the regular leadership enthusiastically embraced. It is clear that Blunt would have been routinely elected as majority leader had Shadegg not entered the race. After Shadegg dropped on the second ballot, his supporters contend that some 90 percent of his votes went to Boehner.

Boehner may well achieve the high performance level set forth by Thomas's nominating speech. Until last Thursday, nobody mentioned Bill Thomas and the Republican leadership in the same breath. But since then, there has been talk of Thomas filling the vacancy of presiding chairman over the leadership's meetings.

Whether the reform advocated in Souder's speech is realized under Boehner is another matter. "We haven't lost anyone in our leadership team," said Rep. Adam Putnam, 32-year-old protege of Speaker Dennis Hastert. Putnam overlooked the fact that he became Policy Committee chairman to replace the highly principled reformer Shadegg, who resigned that leadership post to run for higher office while Blunt did not quit as majority whip. The question arises whether Boehner will at least reduce his old role as money raiser and party giver as he has forsworn earmarks.