No Signs of Panic as GOP Mulls New House Leader

If the maneuvering to replace Rep. Tom DeLay as House majority leader offers an early gauge of Republican worries about the impact of corruption scandals, then so far, it seems, the party isn't panicking.

The only two candidates currently in the race -- acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio -- are far from outsiders. Both are veteran lawmakers who emphasize their experience and ability to get the party back on track. And the path the party seems to be charting for its post-DeLay era is one of cautious change.

Certainly, DeLay's decision to permanently relinquish the leadership post indicates that many in his party believe a change is necessary. The Texas congressman made his decision over the weekend, days after former lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- who had close ties to DeLay and top DeLay aides -- pleaded guilty to corruption charges. DeLay insists he is not a target of the Abramoff investigation but said in a statement that he felt he should give up claims to the leadership post for the good of the party.

But with DeLay out, the GOP may be looking less for a "fresh face" to repair the party's image than for someone to put in place a solid reform agenda. "The party's image is pretty bad," says Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, a moderate who had well-publicized differences with DeLay, and is now supporting Blunt. "That's why it's absolutely essential that our leadership move forward with a [lobbying reform] bill that's at least as good as what Senator McCain and I have proposed," he told ABC News.

Speaker Dennis Hastert has asked Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., to spearhead lobbying reform legislation. Shays has already put forward a reform package that would mandate greater disclosure and tighter restrictions on gifts from lobbyists, and he says now that lawmakers should consider banning gifts outright. There's a clear political incentive for them to do so: According to an ABC News poll released Monday, nine out of 10 Americans say they would favor banning lobbyists from giving members of Congress anything of value.

Ideology and Style Both at Issue

The GOP leadership elections will be held sometime after Jan. 31, when House members return. Blunt and Boehner's offices will not reveal tallies of their supporters, although so far at least 26 members have publicly indicated their support for Blunt and 18 for Boehner. A dark horse candidate could still emerge, however. In a sign of dissatisfaction with the current process, two lawmakers, Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire and Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who had originally circulated a petition for new leadership elections, sent a letter to House colleagues urging a slower approach. But one member whose name had been floated as a possibility -- Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana -- has already taken himself out of the running.

Leadership fights are often portrayed as ideological. But they can be as much about personality and style. Blunt's camp has emphasized his ability to reach out to different elements within the party -- from moderates to social conservatives -- and bring them together. He's also stressing his full support for Hastert and Dreier's reform initiative. But Blunt has close ties to lobbyists himself -- including Abramoff -- and some suggest that as DeLay's protégé and most obvious successor, he might not offer enough of a clean break.

Yet some see Boehner -- a onetime member of the GOP leadership -- as almost as consummate an insider. Boehner has emphasized his reform background -- he rose to prominence in the early 1990s as one of the "gang of seven" who exposed a House banking scandal. Today his aides hand-delivered to the office of each GOP member his 37-page "vision" for getting his party back on track and restoring the public's trust. Unlike Blunt, he has focused on the need for better enforcement of existing rules. "He's not for dismantling the entire system," says spokesman Kevin Smith, but he says greater transparency may be needed.

Nearly everyone agrees the last thing the party needs is a bitter contest that divides members in the run up to the November elections, when all 435 House seats will be up for grabs. Republicans "cannot afford a visibly divisive, nasty fight," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "If there's one thing the country hates more than its political leaders being wrong, it's their party being divided."