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Blunt Stages His Second Act

Five months ago, when Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.) stepped down as Minority Whip after the Republicans’ drubbing on Election Day, it appeared from the outside as if he was getting pushed out and taking the fall for his party.

But from the inside, it was a carefully calculated decision by a Member who had his eyes on a bigger prize: a seat in the Senate.

Blunt was one of two GOP leaders — former Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) was the other — who bowed out of leadership after House Republicans lost 21 seats in November. At the time, the two lawmakers were seen by some as scapegoats for a party in search of a new direction with new faces at the helm.

However, Blunt may have had the upper hand all along. In an interview last week, Blunt said his decision not to run for Minority Whip was driven by the prospect of running to succeed retiring Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.).

“Yes,— Blunt said, after some hesitation, when asked if running for the Senate seat was his motivator. “If you’re doing what you’ve agreed to do as a leader, you’re really restricted in whatever your future options are. That had a lot of impact on my decision.—

Bond didn’t announce his 2010 retirement plans until early January, but Blunt said he sensed the possibility in November, and wasn’t about to miss the opportunity by sticking around in House leadership. Serving atop the hierarchy requires extra time and attention, and would likely have forced Blunt to put any independent views aside.

Some of Blunt’s colleagues agreed that while it may have seemed like the Missouri Republican was thrown under the bus by his party, it now appears as if he was aspiring for greater things all along.

“If anything, Roy is always looking down the road. His sense of timing is always good,— said House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.). “Even if he’d have won, he’d probably have given it up to pursue the other one. Being Whip is 24 hours a day.—

Republicans in Washington, D.C., and Missouri believe Blunt is their best bet to hold onto Bond’s seat in 2010. Nonetheless, Blunt has a tough race ahead of him.

The few public polls that have been released show Blunt trailing Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) by only a few points. Not unlike Blunt, Carnahan’s family is also well-known in Missouri: Her father is the late Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), her mother is former Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) and her brother is Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.).

Blunt faces another roadblock with former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman (R), who is also considering a run for the seat. Steelman has indicated she would run as an outsider and has already hit Blunt for not being fiscally conservative enough during his House tenure.

Blunt maintains that he is “optimistic— about winning the Senate seat but acknowledged that a race against Carnahan would be “one of the most competitive races in the country.—

The Missouri lawmaker is hoping that his policy background will be his golden ticket to the Senate. With 20 months to go until the statewide election, Blunt said he hopes his depth of understanding on key issues will woo voters to his side.

“I’ve always had good luck on policy,— he said, citing his success in engaging Republicans in the energy debate last year, as well as his role in health care and intelligence issues. “Hopefully, that will be something that people will look at and think, This guy may truly be really ready for this job.’—

While no longer part of the leadership team, Blunt still appears to wield significant influence in the Conference. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has tapped him for so many top slots that he practically operates as a leader.

“He’s done a great job of staying very involved in the leadership of our Conference without a formal role … because he’s respected, he knows the issues, he knows the politics downtown. He’s just too great of a resource to just put out to pasture,— Putnam said.

In addition to his Senate campaign, Blunt is still attending GOP leadership meetings, running meetings between committee ranking members and playing a role in shaping policy on the two most pressing issues facing Congress: health care reform and cap-and-trade energy policy.

Blunt warned that these two issues are on track to create “the most anxiety and the most economic difficulty for the country— if Democrats try to roll them into the budget reconciliation process, a procedural tool designed to avert a Senate filibuster.

“That would be a huge mistake if they do it. The economic consequences would be really bad,— the Missouri lawmaker said.

Blunt said he thinks Congress can wrap up health care reform this year, but the question is how Democrats want to play.

“It all depends, frankly, on whether the administration wants to move forward with a plan that 70 percent of the Congress could be for or if they’ll allow this to be one of those, We’re just going to do whatever the majority wants to do,’— he said.

Regardless of political persuasion, most Members lauded Blunt for remaining both relevant and likeable.

“What is unusual, and to his great credit, is that he hasn’t quit,— Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) said.

After narrowly losing the Minority Leader race to Boehner in 2006 and stepping down as Whip in 2008, “Many people would have said, Ah, I was obviously rejected by my own colleagues, and therefore I’ll move on.’ But he didn’t,— Price said.

Should Blunt win the Senate seat, the person who may miss him the most in the House is Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Their close, across-the-aisle friendship has been evident both on a personal level and on key policy matters. The duo has worked together to negotiate agreements on behalf of their parties, including last fall when they brokered a deal on critical domestic surveillance legislation.

Hoyer said the fact that GOP leaders still lean on Blunt so much, despite his not being in leadership, is “testimony to his never in effect falling out of leadership. … They’ve included him at the leadership table. Why? Because they want his counsel and his expertise.—

Hoyer and Blunt are still making the most of their close ties on the issue of health care: Blunt chairs a GOP health care working group and Hoyer runs meetings with committee chairmen that play a role in health care reform. As such, the two have pledged to meet regularly to work out differences between their two parties’ agendas.

Asked if he misses Blunt being the Whip, Hoyer said he doesn’t know Cantor “as well— and conceded that since he has a good relationship with Blunt, “therefore you miss a friend.—

Hoyer added that if Blunt had decided to run for Whip last fall, “he would have been re-elected.—

Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.

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