Blunt Steps Down After Mixed Decade in Leadership
By Ben Pershing
In late January 1999, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Texas) -- at the time, arguably the most powerful Republican in Congress -- selected as his chief deputy a former history teacher and university president with no national profile: Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt.
Today, after the party's second consecutive decimating election, Blunt announced that he would step down from the position of Minority Whip, allowing his own chief deputy, Rep Eric Cantor (R-Va.), to ascend to the Whip post.
At an 11 a.m. meeting with the Capitol press corps, Blunt said he wrote himself a letter two years ago -- sealed it in an envelope, mailed it to his whip's office on the third floor -- and opened it this week. In it, he wrote that he would only serve as Minority Whip through 2008, that he wanted Republicans to be on the march, not on the defensive.
"Ten years of asking people to do things they don't want to do is a long time," Blunt said. He pledged to serve out his two-year term, returning to the Energy and Commerce Committee, and possibly serve longer in Congress as a back-bencher working on energy issues.
He said Republicans need to stand on their principles in the years ahead, morbidly referring to them as "the ony resources we have left" after Tuesday night's losses.
In his decade in leadership, Blunt saw his own stock rise and fall as the GOP leadership around him was buffeted by turbulence. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), whom Blunt succeeded as chief deputy whip, led the party right up until it lost the majority in 2006, then quit Congress. DeLay rose to the Majority Leader job in 2002, allowing Blunt to become the Whip, and then saw his political career disintegrate amid scandal. The Texan was forced to resign from leadership in 2005, and he bowed out of Congress the following year.
Now it's Blunt's turn to step aside. In a way, Blunt had no choice. If he had tried to stay in his job, Cantor would have challenged him, and won.
Blunt's journey over the last decade has been a strange one. He was a key part of a Republican leadership team that was enormously successful for several years, helping orchestrate a near-perfect string of legislative victories on the House floor. But he was always forced -- fairly or not -- to battle perceptions among his colleagues that he was never as skilled as the man who first put him in leadership, DeLay, and never quite cut out to move up from Whip to Majority Leader, for which he lost a contest to Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2006.
Blunt has been a study in contrasts. He can be friendly and accessible, good-naturedly chatting with reporters about the latest books they've read; at times, he can turn back into "Professor Blunt," holding forth on some particularly interesting aspect of American history. Yet Blunt can also be guarded, with even members and aides who've worked with him for years never quite sure whether they really know him. Laboring in DeLay's shadow, an arrangement that eventually begat palpable tension between the two men and their staffs, sometimes made Blunt and his aides paranoid. He occasionally seemed to believe that his colleagues were out to get him, via the press.
And sometimes they were: In 2003, the Washington Post reported that Blunt, only hours after becoming Whip, tried to insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security. At the time, the story noted, Blunt had a "personal relationship with Philip Morris lobbyist Abigail Perlman." (Blunt and Perlman were married later that year.) Believing the story to be unfair, Blunt and some of his aides became fixated on finding out out who leaked it, and that saga helped sow the tension between his office and DeLay's as well as Hastert's.
When DeLay was forced to step down as Leader in 2005 after being indicted by a Texas grand jury, Blunt staged a power play. Hastert and DeLay both wanted Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) to step in as temporary Majority Leader, which would leave Blunt in the Whip post. But Blunt made clear he wanted the promotion, and conservatives both on and off the Hill made clear to an unhappy Hastert that they wanted Blunt in the job rather than Dreier, of whose moderate social views they were suspicious. Blunt won the temporary position, while also remaining Whip, but he made some key enemies along the way.
In January 2006, Boehner beat Blunt for the permanent Majority Leader post, after a hard-fought and occasionally nasty campaign during which Blunt raised eyebrows by claiming he had the votes locked up early in the process. Obviously, he didn't, and after that the writing was on the wall for Blunt that he would probably never be promoted. He transitioned to Minority Whip last year and worked well enough with Boehner, but Cantor's ambitions were widely-known, as was his popularity within the GOP Conference, so it was only a matter of time before Blunt would have to step aside to make room for the Virginian.
After House Republicans lost another 20 seats or so Tuesday, the party rank-and-file was clearly looking for changes at the top. Boehner appears safe, if only because he has no obviously viable challenger, so Blunt had to go. With his stepping down, the entire GOP elected leadership from 10 years ago is now gone. Things have also changed in Blunt's native Missouri. His son, Matt Blunt (R), was elected governor in 2004 but did not run for re-election this year as his popularity waned. Democrat Jay Nixon trounced Republican Kenny Hulshof for the job on Tuesday. And the state, which had backed President Bush twice, was too close to call on the presidential level.
It's not clear whether Blunt will remain in the House beyond the 111th Congress. He serves on the Energy and Commerce panel and so could refocus his energy on policy issues -- something for which he may have always been better-suited than political fights. But the GOP looks likely to remain in the minority for awhile. So retirement -- whether to make money on K Street or simply spend more time with his family, which includes a young son -- appears to be the more attractive option. Either way, his time in leadership has ended, as has one of the last remaining connections between the GOP's pinnacle of power in the House and its current predicament.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.
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