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Blunt Seeks Stable Conference

Recognizing the precariousness of his position, House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has spent the past two weeks seeking to solidify his support both on and off Capitol Hill and smooth out the tensions that emerged when he unexpectedly ascended to the post vacated by indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Republican lawmakers, aides and lobbyists said Blunt has sought to convey a message of stability, while at the same time working to avoid the appearance that he is actively campaigning to win the Majority Leader post on a permanent basis.

Since his promotion, Blunt has approached a handful of lawmakers who expressed concerns about the way the succession happened or who are particularly close to DeLay, in an effort to convince them that he understands their concerns.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a key DeLay ally, said Blunt had reached out to him to reiterate his support for the indicted lawmaker.

“He’s very supportive of Tom DeLay and he’s focusing on the same issues we always have,” Smith said, adding that Blunt made a point of emphasizing “that he’s the temporary Majority Leader and we hope that Tom returns.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has also been vocal in expressing his support for DeLay, said that Blunt and other leaders were well aware of the perils of campaigning for promotion in the current environment.

“I wouldn’t want to see jockeying for leadership between now and January,” King said.

While Blunt reaches out on the Member level, his current and former chiefs of staff, Brian Gaston, and Cassidy & Associates’ Gregg Hartley, respectively, have convened small gatherings with key Republican lobbyists in order to convey a similar message of unity. Those meetings take place in the Majority Whip office, in which Blunt continues to work while occupying both posts.

Attendees at the meetings have included Drew Maloney of the Federalist Group, David Hoppe of Quinn Gillespie, Steve Hart of Williams & Jensen, Tony Rudy of Alexander Strategies, Mark Isakowitz of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, Kathryn Lehman of Holland & Knight and a handful of others.

“There is an effort to not focus right now on personalities or leadership races but on taking care of the [Republican] Conference,” said a lobbyist who participated in one of the meetings. “They’re staying away from leadership races because it can sort of erode the ability to work as a team, and it’s also disrespectful to DeLay as he’s going through this.”

The lobbyist added that the meetings are “not specifically about [Blunt’s future], though obviously anything that goes well for the Conference is going to accrue benefit to Roy. Given his situation the staff is being careful to not just make it about him.”

Another lobbyist who has attended the sessions said they were as much about calming frazzled nerves as they were about any specific legislative items.

“I think part of what’s going on is that there was some uncertainty of how is it going to work, is there a big shakeup?” said the second lobbyist. “What he is doing is having these meetings to reassure everyone that for the most part this is just the status quo.”

For Blunt, the status quo means helping to guide the Conference through the politically difficult reconciliation process and a potentially controversial immigration debate. He will do so holding two leadership posts while knowing all along that DeLay could return at any point to kick him back down the ladder.

“It’s an unenviable position that anyone has to step into,” said Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio).

In effect, Blunt has three intersecting, and somewhat contradictory, challenges: leading the Conference, avoiding an appearance of campaigning for a permanent promotion, and staying abreast of any possible leadership challenges that could emerge in January. Many lawmakers have said they expect new elections to be held at the start of 2006, though the jury is still out on that point.

“I don’t believe that will be the will of the Conference, but we’ll have to wait and see,” Pryce said.

As he has reached out to his colleagues and pushed forward on the agenda, Blunt has also taken steps to raise his public profile. On Monday he met with the Wall Street Journal editorial board in New York, a key pilgrimage for conservative leaders.

And on Thursday, Blunt will hold his first pen-and-pad briefing since moving into his new post. Those briefings are vital in shaping press coverage since the Majority Leader’s weekly sessions are usually the most sustained access the press has to the GOP leadership.

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