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Members Weigh Effect on DeLay

With the current slate of House Republican leaders likely to be re-elected with ease when the chamber convenes for a lame-duck session in November, the eventual race to replace Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) remains stuck in neutral.

Given the rules of decorum and the fact that Hastert has not yet indicated when he plans to leave the House, no Republican was willing to speak on the record about a potential future Speaker’s race.

Yet background interviews with more than a dozen senior Members and aides suggested that such a contest is already on in many Republicans’ minds, both because of the uncertainty about Hastert’s plans and the recent spate of ethical controversy surrounding Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Any conversation about the next Speaker begins with DeLay, the current No. 2 man in leadership and the most active political force in the Republican Conference. Below him, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) is seen by Members as unlikely to try to vault over his mentor into the Speakership, while the future intentions of National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) are less clear.

Outside of the current slate of leaders, Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) is seen by many lawmakers and staffers as the man most likely to challenge DeLay for the top post.

As expected, neither of those two Members is interested in discussing the subject.

“Tom DeLay has said many times that the only leadership job he ever really wanted was to be Whip,” said DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy. “Since holding that position, he has let everything else take care of itself.”

Boehner also dismissed a question about a potential future race.

“I’m focused in on my chairmanship and the work I have to do with regard to my committee,” he said.

While they have a cordial professional relationship, Boehner and DeLay are not personal friends and are seen within the Conference as rivals. Both come from large, influential state delegations and have powerful networks of allies and former aides on K Street. Both have also raised millions of dollars for Republican candidates.

While Boehner has been out of leadership since 1998, when he lost his re-election race for the GOP Conference chairmanship to then-Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.), DeLay revolutionized the position of Whip and has since broadened his portfolio as Majority Leader.

With that record, the only obvious opening for Boehner or any other challenger would be the fact that DeLay has become a lighting rod for controversy — the same reason DeLay did not run for the top post in 1998 and supported Hastert instead.

Last week, the House ethics committee admonished the Texan for his work in trying to persuade Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to vote in favor of last year’s Medicare bill.

That marked the second time the ethics panel has admonished DeLay, the previous incident coming in 1999 after DeLay allegedly threatened the Electronics Industries Association for hiring a Democrat. A separate ethics complaint filed by lame-duck Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) was still pending at press time, although ethics panel action on the matter appeared imminent.

In Texas, a grand jury last month indicted three DeLay allies for their use of corporate funds during the state’s 2002 legislative elections. More tangentially, DeLay associate Jack Abramoff and former aide Mike Scanlon are currently being investigated for questionable multimillion-dollar payments they received from American Indian casino clients.

Even if the Bell complaint is dismissed and the Texas investigation stops short of DeLay, the confluence of negative stories could provide an opening for a Speakership challenge if Hastert announces a surprise retirement in the next year, according to some rank-and-file Members.

But one Republican lawmaker who is close to the leadership was doubtful that anyone would challenge DeLay unless the Texan was in a seriously weakened condition.

“I don’t see anyone who has the juice to get in against him,” said the lawmaker. “No one has done more to elect more Members [than DeLay]. No one comes close. Not the Speaker. Not Boehner. Not anyone.”

DeLay allies have long contended that much of the controversy surrounding the lawmaker is the work of Democrats and other critics who recognize that he has been indispensable to the GOP’s success since 1994 and want to stop him before he ascends to a spot third in line to the presidency.

Yet the handful of Members who said privately that they would support Boehner in a future race contended that DeLay would not present the best “face of the party.” While Hastert has maintained a relatively low media profile, these Members argued that Democrats and the media would force DeLay into the spotlight whether he wanted it or not.

Even as he acknowledged that DeLay was “the best Whip anyone could ever remember,” one veteran GOP lawmaker argued that Boehner was better suited for Speaker because he “really has an understanding of where our Conference needs to go.”

Another Member who is in Boehner’s corner suggested that the Ohioan has grown since he was booted out of leadership.

“One thing you judge people on is how they accept a loss,” said the Member. After 1998 “John then became the most supportive guy for the leadership. He didn’t go off in a corner and sulk.”

Ideologically, Boehner’s reputation for pragmatism and flexibility could help him in some segments in the Conference just as it hurts him in others.

Many moderates have expressed frustration with DeLay’s legislative priorities during his tenure in leadership, though they have also acknowledged his professionalism and willingness to listen to their concerns.

DeLay could almost certainly count on the support of the chamber’s most committed conservatives, many of whom would see Boehner as too much of a dealmaker to aggressively advance their principles.

Two Members suggested that the key turning point in determining the next Speaker will come two Novembers from now, particularly if President Bush is re-elected next month. According to one theory, DeLay’s chances for the post could be reduced if the GOP’s margin of error shrinks.

“2006 may be the toughest election to hold the majority that we’ve ever had,” one of the Members said.

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