Just a few months into the 110th Congress — and the GOP’s downgraded status — House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) already is making subtle moves to reassert himself in the leadership lineup and take bolder and more vocal positions on issues important to conservatives.
The Missourian is taking bolder conservative stances on issues such as education and immigration and appears more willing to challenge the White House. At the same time, Blunt has ratcheted up his media outreach with a more aggressive press operation that includes reaching out to conservative blogs, such as redstate.com, and launching his own “Republican Whip Roy Blunt Channel” on YouTube.com, which has garnered a modest 1,200 hits.
He also insisted on joining Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) in hosting the weekly pen-and-pad meeting with Congressional reporters, and he performs the Minority Whip’s standard task of conducting the weekly colloquy on the House floor with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“Congressman Blunt has always been a conservative. He is focused on helping our Conference get back to its core principles,” said spokeswoman Burson Snyder. “All of his efforts are a direct offshoot of the desire to get back a majority.”
Blunt’s repositioning in leadership is in noticeable contrast to the months following his loss to Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) for Majority Leader in February 2006, when he made a concerted effort to lower his profile and take a step back from the spotlight so Boehner could solidify himself in his new role.
At the time Blunt sought to be gracious in defeat and to defuse any speculation that a rivalry would persist between the two lawmakers and their staffs.
But after the rank and file re-elected Boehner and Blunt to their respective posts following the Election Day losses that cost Republicans their majority, Blunt is again staking out a more active role in leadership.
Blunt’s recent maneuvering has not gone unnoticed in the House.
“If the Roy Blunt we’ve seen in the past two months had been that way for the past five years, he would be Majority Leader,” observed a GOP aide to a conservative lawmaker. “His office has become a lot more engaged. He’s been going to every conservative press conference he can attend, speaking out on the issues, and his press operation is much more aggressive — he’s checking off all of the boxes.”
However, the aide said, Blunt battles a perception problem. “The question is, ‘Is there core conviction there?’’’ the aide said. “He’s doing a very good job at sounding conservative, but there is a question of how sincere he is.”
That sentiment was echoed by some lawmakers. “The guy is in constant perpetual motion to advance his leadership position,” said one prominent Republican Member who spoke on background. “It’s fairly transparent among the Members. That being said, I think he’s doing OK. I don’t underestimate him in leadership races because he’ll do what it takes to win.”
Multiple sources interviewed for this story observed that Blunt’s motivation is two-fold. No longer burdened by advancing a legislative agenda, he has more freedom to take principled, rather than practical, stances on legislation and adhering to conservative ideals.
“He’s trying to go back to his roots and be the conservative voice in leadership and for the base,” observed one source off the Hill with ties to leadership.
Blunt also appears to be heeding some of the criticism that was lobbed at him in both of his recent leadership races, first against Boehner for Majority Leader, and later in November against Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) for Minority Whip.
While Blunt has long maintained close ties with conservative establishment figures in Washington, D.C., such as Free Congress Foundation Chairman Paul Weyrich, who hosts a weekly luncheon with prominent conservatives that Blunt often attends, he also has been the target of criticism from some of the more conservative Members in the House.
The longest-serving member of the current leadership team, Blunt was knocked in leadership races by some colleagues — particularly by a small but vocal group of conservatives in the Republican Study Committee — for not being enough of a reformer and representing the “old guard” of GOP leaders under ex-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who engineered Blunt’s early rise in leadership.
He also was hit on a grass-roots level in leadership races by conservative bloggers and activists who criticized Blunt for playing a major role in passing legislation that expanded the federal government, including the 2003 Medicare prescription drug law.
Having been challenged before, Blunt is not inoculated from a future contest and sources close to Blunt said he is working to bolster his position in the House and send signals that he intends to keep a seat at the table.
Regardless of whether Republicans win or lose a House majority in 2008, Blunt will continue to be viewed as a potential challenger to Boehner until he says otherwise, and he also is potentially vulnerable to a challenge from Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who made good on a promise not to challenge Blunt for Minority Whip in November despite efforts from some colleagues to recruit him into the race.
Knowledgeable Congressional sources close to both Blunt and Cantor have said that it was a one-time deal, and that Cantor will not be bound to a similar agreement down the line.
While Blunt and Cantor continue to work together to run the Whip operation — and have touted recent floor successes in passing GOP initiatives with Democratic support on the floor by skillfully using motions to recommit — most handicappers believe Cantor would be a strong challenger if he chose to run against Blunt in the future.
The most prominent example of Blunt’s renewed assertiveness is his decision two weeks ago to co-sponsor a bill by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) to let states opt out of mandatory testing requirements enacted in the No Child Left Behind Act — a bill that Blunt helped whip, and originally supported on the House floor. Cantor also is a co-sponsor.
Blunt’s support of Hoekstra’s bill is largely symbolic—the vast majority of co-sponsors are RSC members and the legislation is designed to set a conservative marker on the issue. Neither Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) or ranking member Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) support the legislation.
“It basically guts No Child Left Behind,” McKeon said last week.
In fact, sources said McKeon — a friend and political ally of Boehner, who was chairman of the Education panel when the act passed in 2001 — was particularly irritated by the move.
“I’ve had discussions with [the co-sponsors],” McKeon said. “People can support that bill but at the end of the day … there’s not the votes to pass it.”
He added that he was hopeful some of the bill’s co-sponsors ultimately would support the reauthorization when it hits the floor.
“A lot of us would like things different than what we end up with. I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape about it,” McKeon said. “We’re working to get a good bipartisan bill and hopefully we’ll have some of the co-sponsors of [Hoekstra’s] bill with us.”
Yet Blunt has gone out of his way to criticize the No Child Left Behind Act — most notably at a Nov. 9 speech he gave at the Heritage Foundation, when he said in retrospect he “violated one of my basic political beliefs” in supporting the law.
Blunt’s more independent streak has not gone unnoticed by the Bush administration, where sources said his support of Hoekstra’s bill caught the attention of officials at the White House and the Education Department concerned by the second-ranking Republican in the House supporting legislation that would flatten Bush’s signature domestic achievement.
Sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said White House officials are prepared for Blunt to be more combative as the Democratic Congress moves forward on immigration as well. So far, GOP leaders largely have kept their powder dry, but Blunt previously has advocated the border-security first approach and has been critical of any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that does not require them to leave the country first.
“I think he is the guy that the White House knows is not going to be on board,” said one source familiar with the negotiations.
Congressional Democrats are working with Bush in an effort to move broad immigration reform this year. It is one issue where the president is likely to find compromise with Democrats and more moderate Republicans, but risks alienating his more conservative allies in the House.
In addition to No Child Left Behind and immigration, Blunt also has shown a willingness recently to criticize the administration on other issues. Earlier this month he expressed uncharacteristic anger after an internal audit at the Justice Department revealed that the FBI has improperly and sometimes illegally used “national security letters” to obtain information on private citizens and underreported their activities to Congress.
“I am increasingly displeased and concerned about that the more I think about it. The big question to me is how something as important and as delicately balanced as proper surveillance under the [USA] PATRIOT Act doesn’t get the kind of attention from the FBI it deserves,” he said, suggesting that FBI Director Robert Mueller could face serious consequences.
“I’m hopeful that as we look more into that we’ll find out that Mr. Mueller is taking responsibility, ” Blunt said. “If it turns out somehow that he was culpable, of course he should leave.”
Blunt has built a reputation as a methodical and ambitious lawmaker, and Republican sources said it was difficult to see the Missouri lawmaker satisfied in the House unless it was in a leadership role. While former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has settled in as a rank-and-file lawmaker, it is an unlikely route for Blunt, sources said.
“He’s in leadership because he’s gifted,” said a former GOP leadership aide. “He’s very comfortable with [Boehner] and the leadership team right now. Whatever people think of him personally, they know that he’s bright, he’s strategic, and he’s the kind of guy you want in the room.”