House GOP may go back to the future

Former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is gone, Democrats will soon control the floor and House speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will be just another member of the minority — if a member at all.

As much as last week’s momentous loss ushered in a new era for Republicans in the House, the GOP is on the brink of returning some familiar faces to the leadership.

With Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) all but assured of retaining the title of leader when Republicans assume the minority next year, suspense hangs on the race for whip between Reps. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the current occupant, and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), a darling of the conservative media.

Blunt has told supporters in private that he has the votes to preserve his leadership post when members cast their secret ballots this Friday, members and an aide said yesterday, but some of those same supporters question the strength of his backing. Blunt made a similar prediction before losing to Boehner in their majority leader race earlier this year.

Some of Blunt’s allies are desperate for him to step aside in order to clear the way for his chief deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a prolific fundraiser and established vote-counter who has been making phone calls in support of the Missouri Republican since last Wednesday.

These supporters are concerned that Blunt’s tally is soft heading into the election and that some of his confirmed votes will buck him on the secret ballot. Whips rank their votes on a number scale to account for the level of support, and many of the whip’s supporters are not hard commitments, one ally said yesterday.

“If you’re the incumbent and you don’t have the support locked down to hold your job, you’re screwed,” the same backer said yesterday. “You have to understand you’re screwed and get out of the race.”

Concerned that Shadegg would fumble some of the procedural responsibilities required of a whip, these Blunt supporters are weighing their options to elevate Cantor to the No. 2 slot in the Republican hierarchy.

“A sizable percentage of Blunt supporters are supporting Blunt because of Cantor,” the same lawmaker said.

Blunt’s staff is dismissive of these suggestions to step aside.

“Congressman Blunt is extremely responsive to the members of his conference, and he is staying in the race to win it because he believes he has the support from the majority of his colleagues,” his spokeswoman, Jessica Boulanger, said.

Internal rules governing the election process allow members to nominate limitless candidates on the day of the election. Cantor has pledged not to challenge Blunt, but members could nominate him even though he has not campaigned.

The Virginia Republican has not had any role in this movement to elect him, his spokesman and a number of outside members said, but he could stem the speculation with a public statement of support for Blunt.

There is some concern on a staff level that a loose group of senior staff and established outside lobbyists are feeding much of the buzz about Cantor and Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who is vying for the conference chairmanship against Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).

While evidence is scant that such a group is coordinating votes behind-the-scenes, the perception concerns those members and staff with limited input on leadership decisions and could foment discontent over the next two years.

Members and staff from all ends of the conference believe Boehner has the race for leader wrapped up, but his two opponents, Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), continue to work for support in anticipation of the Friday ballot.

“Personally, I am not willing to wait for the Democrats to make their own mistakes to take back the majority,” Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), a prominent social conservative, wrote to members of the Values Action Team yesterday. “We need a leader who can, as Newt Gingrich did and as President Reagan did, communicate ably and earnestly with the American people about what we believe. I believe Mike Pence is that man.”

Most of the candidates running from outside the leadership were expecting stronger discontent from Republicans following last week’s rout on Election Day.

Pence, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee who characterizes his confrontations with leadership as “cheerful pugilism,” said Republicans have not yet grasped the enormity of last week’s loss and what that means when Congress resumes next year.

“One thing our colleagues have yet to completely absorb is that the environment is completely different,” Pence told a small group of reporters yesterday.

Given that shift, Pence said the conference, and particularly its leaders, should stake their own position on issues and battle the administration publicly whenever necessary, something past leaders have been reluctant to do.

Conservatives throughout the party have seized on last week’s results to argue that Republicans have strayed from their principles in recent years, and many of these members hint that the conference should make some bold steps during its reorganization.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), an outspoken conservative who is not publicly backing either candidate in the whip race, is concerned that Republicans will send a bad message to angry GOP voters who either didn’t show up or voted against them on Election Day for ethical transgressions and failing to reduce federal spending.

“We got in trouble with voters outside the Beltway for things we did inside the Beltway,” Feeney said. “We have to show them Republicans inside the Beltway understand that.”

Centrist Republicans are concerned that this conservative shift will alienate them even further from the decision-making process.

During a dinner of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership on Monday, which was attended by numerous centrists who lost, such as Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), members lamented their diminished influence in the conference. Most members present were backing Boehner in the race for leader, according to one attendee, but few were enthused about their choices in many of the top races. Only members who won their Election Day races can vote in the leadership races.

In general, centrists are concerned that leaders have ignored their priorities in the past, and a conservative resurgence would continue to endanger their seats.

“I don’t think a rightward shift is the way to go,” Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who often negotiates with leaders on centrist concerns, said last week on the brink of Election Day.

As members fight for the upper hand in races for whip and conference chair, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) is expected to release the names of 105 supporters tomorrow that would lock up his bid for chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the seat Putnam abandoned in his bid for conference chair, spokesman Bob Jackson said. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), McCotter’s opponent, released his own list of 60 public supporters yesterday.

As Friday approaches, Blunt’s supporters are encouraging members to stand with him because he has proven himself in the role during such a difficult stretch for Republicans.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), a loyal Blunt supporter, thinks it would be foolish for members to replace their current whip because he is proven at corralling tough votes, particularly among conservatives, and because Republicans will need to unite against Democrats in the minority.

“Democrats took a page from our playbook by unifying, and that’s when it was difficult to govern,” Brady said. “We would be foolish to miss our own lesson.”

Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.