Three-Way Race for House Leadership Heats Up

With Tom DeLay out of the race, three Republicans are vying to become the next House Majority Leader: Missouri's Roy Blunt, John Shadegg of Arizona and Ohio's John Boehner. The party's conservative wing holds a retreat in Baltimore Monday, where the candidates will appear. The vote comes on Feb. 2.

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Things have not been easy lately for Republicans in the House of Representatives. There's been corruption charges, a lobbying scandal, the resignation of one member and Tom DeLay's departure from his leadership post. Republican's will vote for new leaders later this week after the House returns from a break.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook has the latest on the race for majority leader.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

They call themselves the majority of the majority. This powerful block of House conservatives, the Republican Study Committee, is meeting today and tomorrow in Baltimore and an example of their weight in the House is the fact that all three candidates for Majority Leader are here courting votes. Since they're all playing on team Republican, candidates Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boehner of Ohio and John Shadegg of Arizona all find a certain amount of goodwill among conservatives, though that's not to say there are not favorites.

Representative TOM FEENEY (Republican, Florida): All of them are great. They all get an A-; I'd give John an A+.

SEABROOK: Florida's Tom Feeney, will vote for John Shaddeg, the only candidate for Majority Leader who is an actual member of the conservative caucus. Feeney, like many of his colleagues, says Republicans must clean up the process of how lawmakers get earmarks in spending bills and how much sway lobbyists have.

Representative FEENEY: John Shaddeg has been the most consistent conservative, and I also think on the reform issue he'd be in a position to have the easiest time of dramatic reforms of the earmark process or the budgeting process.

SEABROOK: But there are those among conservatives who think such changes should be made without losing the majority's character. California's Darrell Issa says, that means he'll vote for the acting Majority Leader and current Whip Roy Blunt.

Representative DARRELL ISSA (Republican, California): I'm one of these people who thinks that you can make changes without making radical changes, that, in fact, the leader is supposed to set the floor agenda, is supposed to, in fact, be answerable to us.

SEABROOK: And Issa believes Blunt would be best at the job. Others though say making Blunt the Majority Leader would send the message that Republicans believe business as usual is just fine. Still Blunt is believed to be the front-runner in the race, with more public vows of support than the other two candidates. But even so, he can't count on the votes of all who've worked closely with him. Take Congressman Steve Pearce of New Mexico.

Representative STEVE PEARCE (Republican, New Mexico): Mr. Blunt has been very nice to me. He chose me for the Whip team. He's helped me personally. But for me it's like looking in the eyes and choosing who's going to be the best quarterback, the best leader.

SEABROOK: Pearce says he'll vote for John Boehner, in part because Pearce was dismayed at some of the bills that Blunt and the rest of the leadership allowed to come to the House floor last year, notably a stem cell bill and hate crime legislation that was sponsored by Democrats.

So, all three candidates for Majority Leader find support among conservatives in Congress. And just about everyone stresses that while Blunt may be ahead, no one can be sure since the race will be decided on Thursday by secret ballot. That lends a sort of unpredictable quality to the race, where some Republicans privately commit to more than one candidate, and the candidates can't really count on anything.

Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp says the only thing he's sure of is that this leadership election will be a shake up for Republicans.

Representative ZACH WAMP (Republican, Tennessee): I would be very surprised at the end of the day if we don't make some changes in our leadership by Thursday night. I would be very, very surprised. I just think the undercurrent for change, I hear too many members, a lot of them that initially said yes to Blunt, are saying now, I realize we better not leave ourselves in this position. That's really the undercurrent here in our conference. So how it plays out, who knows. It's going to be an interesting week.

SEABROOK: And of all those in the Republican leadership, only Speaker Dennis Hastert is safe from challenge. There's a movement gaining force among Republicans to have elections for the rest of the House leadership, as well.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Baltimore.

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