Budget vote could hurt, help Blunt

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has little room for error when the House considers a $39 billion package of spending cuts tomorrow, just a day before his Republican colleagues are scheduled to vote on whether to make him majority leader.

“It’s a make-or-break vote for Blunt,” one Republican strategist said.

Blunt’s team said it is confident the votes will materialize to pass the budget bill.

“Most members aren’t in the position of reversing themselves on tough votes,” said his spokeswoman, Jessica Boulanger.

A strong victory would boost Blunt’s campaign to move to the No. 2 rung on the GOP leadership ladder at a critical time, though it would not ensure his ascension. A loss, a delayed vote or any extension of the typical 15-minute vote, however, could be devastating. And the current political climate isn’t helping Blunt’s vote-gathering efforts.

Democrats and left-leaning interest groups have intensified pressure on Republicans, hoping to sway enough wavering lawmakers to kill the budget cuts. And influential New York Times writer Robert Pear reported yesterday that the Congressional Budget Office estimates millions of poor Americans would be forced to pay more for healthcare under the measure and that others would choose not to seek care because of increased Medicaid premiums.

“Maybe some of our members are getting cold feet,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). “Part of being in our leadership and being the whip is to get the votes for these important bills.”

Seldom has one vote been so fraught with political implications for a party leader. Blunt, the interim majority leader, is surrounded by rivals and their allies who have become emboldened by his inability to lock down overwhelming public support heading into the leadership election.

But the task is not easy. Even without the backdrop of a rare mid-Congress leadership race, leaders and their aides often say budget votes are among the toughest.

In three years as his party’s top nose-counter, the budget has given Blunt fits. The standard 15 minutes for a vote has not always been enough time for his whip team to assemble a majority, and the margin often has been in the low single digits.

Republicans from marginal districts know that lean funding can hurt them come election time, and the only Democrat to vote for a budget or spending reconciliation bill during Blunt’s tenure as whip, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, is now a Republican.

Blunt scored a victory by six votes — 212-206 — when the House passed a nearly identical package of spending cuts last month. But his coalition is showing signs of erosion.

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), perennially one of the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbents, has declared he will switch his vote to no. Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) is wavering. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), another supporter of the cuts in December, is not commenting on his upcoming vote, according to a spokesman.

None of the three has declared his support in the three-way race for majority leader, but Sweeney is an outspoken advocate of holding a full slate of leadership elections.

Blunt faces John Boehner (R-Ohio) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) in Thursday’s election of a new majority leader, a job Blunt has handled since Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was forced to step down because of an indictment.

But before the palace intrigue unfolds, the budget vote presents a unique opportunity for Blunt’s rivals — or, more plausibly, their undeclared supporters — to sabotage the Republican whip.

In this intense environment, some lawmakers may withhold their votes in hopes of securing deals from Blunt. But the real wild card in most leadership-race scenarios is DeLay, who has not committed to any of the three candidates and has been uncharacteristically quiet during the race. DeLay, whose absence from leadership has revealed a gaping power vacuum, remains influential with many of his colleagues, and he has allies in each camp.

Lawmakers and aides interviewed for this story downplayed the possibility of internal politics trumping the party’s policy goals.

“This thing’s going to be sabotaged by constituents” if anyone, said LaHood, who, despite noting more than 700 calls to his office opposed to the spending-cut package, will again support it.

“I don’t think anyone is going to try and mess with the vote” to sway the leadership race, said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio). He added that if the measure passes by a large margin it would not necessarily be attributed to Blunt’s handiwork. Both LaHood and LaTourette have publicly committed to supporting Boehner.

“I think we’ve got the margin to pass, so [I] can’t speculate,” a senior Republican aide said.

The aide questioned how other candidates would benefit if the budget were defeated. Indeed, engineering the defeat of a spending-cut package would hardly burnish the credentials of a candidate seeking to lead the GOP. But after a floor defeat, the budget bill could be resurrected. The same might not be said of Blunt’s ambition to become majority leader.

On the other hand, Blunt could recommend himself to colleagues by successfully navigating the tough chore of passing spending cuts in an election year amid intra-conference turmoil.

Democrats were united in their opposition to the spending reconciliation bill last month. Sixteen lawmakers — 10 Republicans and six Democrats — missed that vote, but Democratic leadership aides say they expect better attendance this time around, meaning Blunt, too, will have to get votes from past absentees.

Democrats scored a significant victory on the Senate side in December.

House Republicans face a second vote on the spending reconciliation bill because the Senate killed the original version when Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) raised a successful point of order against provisions whose effect on spending was merely incidental to intended policy changes — a violation of budget rules.

With the offending provisions removed — and using another parliamentary track — Senate leaders sent the measure back to the House before wrapping up business at the end of the year.

Senate Republican leaders blasted their Democratic counterparts for delaying completion of the spending cuts, calling the move “childish.” But Democrats and left-leaning interest groups have held out hope that extra time to review the specifics of the bill would cause centrist Republicans to switch their votes and defeat it. GOP offices, such as LaHood’s, are getting bombarded with correspondence from angry constituents.

Earlier this month, labor unions launched ads in 11 congressional districts, including Simmons’s, aimed at killing the bill.

“Many moderates didn’t realize that Draconian cuts to programs for seniors were even included in the conference report,” Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said at the time. “Now that they have had over a month to study the bill, they should understand why bucking their leadership and voting down the cuts is the right thing to do.”

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.