"I want to be Speaker," Blunt told a number of friends, both here and in Washington, and it seemed a real possibility.
But last week Blunt watched as his political future was seized from his hands. DeLay's close friend, Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty to corruption and agreed to squeal. DeLay was forced to abandon all hope of regaining his majority leader's office. Dozens of House Republicans, worried about their own races in November, found their own voices and issued calls for new leadership elections.
In a political world without backstabbing -- in other words, a perfect, impossible place -- Roy Blunt would step up and assume DeLay's office without dissent. He's been a good soldier and prolific donor to fellow Republicans in the House; this year alone, Blunt's PAC has donated nearly $300,000 to GOP members of Congress, on pace to match his 2004 donation mark of $682,039.
But Blunt, who turns 56 on Tuesday, is anything but a slam-dunk for majority leader. Perfumed with the taint of DeLay and Abramoff, Blunt is being challenged from both wings of his own party. He's also been reduced to saying that reform will be at the top of his agenda, if he's elected majority leader. From CNN:
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who was chairman of the House Republican Conference from 1994 to 1998, and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, who has been the interim leader, each said they will seek to replace DeLay.
"We need a conference with the courage and confidence to tackle our nation's problems. This is a critical time for the Republican conference," Boehner said Sunday, according to a news release.
Blunt was also reaching out to fellow House Republicans in hopes of winning their support.
"Unfortunately, the recent scandals have caused some to question whether we have lost our vision and whether the faith they have placed in us is justified," Blunt wrote in a letter to the conference.
"While I have no doubt that it is, it will be difficult to move forward with our platform until we regain the trust and confidence of our constituents by enacting new lobbying reforms and enhanced penalties for those who break the public trust."
Further complicating Blunt's path to the leader's office: Conservatives in power don't seem especially high on him. Lingering suspicions about his loyalty, perhaps. Given the speed with which Blunt severed ties to DeLay last September, there may be merit to those suspicions.
There is also The Divorce. Locals like to brush it aside as old news, but the D.C. chatterers bring it up while dissing Blunt. From the Corner at National Review, Rich Lowry writes:
Just talked to a top Republican strategist in Washington. This is what he says, “I hear next week there is going to be a call for an election [to select DeLay's replacement as majority leader]. I don't know all the details, but a number of members have called the speaker to say we've got to have it. You need 50 signatures on a letter to trigger an election. The feeling has been that there aren't 50 members with the courage to sign such a letter. That changed considerably since the Abramoff plea. Everybody believes there should be an election. DeLay has been focused on getting cleared in Texas. Members aren't worried about Texas, they're worried about Washington and Abramoff and the '06 elections.”
A leadership election could be held in late January, but it will probably be early February.
The two likely candidates at the moment are acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt and Rep. John Boehner. This strategist says he likes them both, but made this tart observation: “It's Boehner, who is Mr. K St., versus Blunt, who left his wife of 30 years to marry a Queen of K St., a tobacco lobbyist -- both trying to be leader of a party facing a K. St. scandal.”
Early February for leadership elections gives Blunt some time to mend some strained ties and try to intimidate Boehner out of running. Failing that, the scenarios play out this way:
•Blunt defeats Boehner, becomes majority leader, punishes his GOP enemies, and prepares to become Speaker of the House when Rep. Dennis Hastert jumps (or is pushed from the balcony).
•Blunt loses the election for leader and is banished to the back benches, where he contemplates giving up his House seat and making some serious jack as a rainmaker.
If the leadership elections were held today, we wouldn't give Blunt much of a chance; he's too closely associated with Tom DeLay (and, by extension, Jack Abramoff) to put on a fresh face. But a month of news cycles can make even elephants forget some things.