It’s not clear whether Tom DeLay, the second-ranking member of the House of Representatives, will be unseated as a result of the various scandals that surround him. But if “The Hammer” goes, who might replace him as House majority leader? Here’s a primer on who’s in line for the job:
Roy Blunt.The odds-on favorite. A fifth-term Missouri congressman who became House majority whip in 2003, Blunt is a far less polarizing figure than DeLay, though he’s just as conservative. He has quietly positioned himself to move up in the leadership by building a reputation for being tough and aggressive while maintaining a good relationship with his colleagues. Though Blunt hasn’t suggested he’s trying to push out DeLay, he has made it known that he wants the job if it becomes available. Should DeLay step down, expect headline writers to trot out plenty of painful “Blunt” puns as they speculate about who moves up.
There are reasons, however, to think that Blunt might fail. A couple of years back, he became involved with and then married a Philip Morris lobbyist named Abigail Perlman. The relationship earned Blunt some bad press when it was revealed that he’d quietly tried to insert a last-minute provision benefiting Philip Morris into the 2002 Homeland Security bill. Last week, the American Spectator reported that many on the Hill think DeLay operatives planted the negative story about Blunt in order to prevent him from challenging their boss. Blunt also has had to fight cancer twice in recent years, though he seems to be fine now.
John Boehner.The comeback kid. Boehner, an eighth-term Ohioan, was tapped by Robert Novak in January as DeLay’s probable replacement, assuming he goes. Boehner is extremely ambitious and smooth—sometimes too much so. “People aren’t always sure whether to trust him,” says one political operative. After losing the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference to J.C. Watts in the wake of the disastrous 1998 election, Boehner rehabilitated himself on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, where he orchestrated passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. He’s also conservative enough to satisfy his colleagues, having earned a perfect rating from the American Conservative Union in 2004.
Boehner has been careful not too look as though he’s after DeLay’s job. His office won’t talk about whether he’s interested. But almost everyone thinks he is, and he has a sizable network to help him. He also has an ace in the hole: Barry Jackson, his former chief of staff, is now one of Karl Rove’s closest allies and could drum up White House support for his former boss.
Thomas M. Reynolds. The insider. There’s a lot of buzz about Reynolds, an ultra-plugged-in, fourth-term New Yorker who has been enormously successful as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the organization that raises cash, plots strategy, and recruits Republican candidates for the House. Reynolds is a little less conservative than Blunt and Boehner—he voted for welfare assistance for home heating, for example, which ACU opposed—but not fatally so. And he’s an excellent fund-raiser who has raised serious money for powerful Republicans, including Bush. Like House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Reynolds is physically imposing but low-key, the kind of guy who likes to do business in back rooms. That quality could appeal to Republicans who are nervous that DeLay’s high profile could hurt their re-election chances. It’s not clear whether Reynolds has the network he’d need to beat out Blunt or Boehner, but his success at NRCC and fast rise through the Republican ranks have made him the favorite to eventually succeed Hastert. If he can convince his colleagues his time has come, he could drum up enough votes to secure the No. 2 job for now.
Deborah Pryce. The long shot.As House Republican Conference chairwoman, Pryce is the highest-ranking woman in the House. She might have a chance at majority leader should Republicans decide they want a friendly face to help soften their image. The shift would be a bit like the one in the Senate from Trent Lott to Bill Frist. A former judge, Pryce has one big disadvantage: She has not consistently voted pro-life, which means she likely won’t have the support of staunch conservatives. But if the ethics issues spread beyond DeLay and begin to taint the party, Pryce has a far outside shot.
The rest of the field: Other House members being discussed for DeLay’s job have even longer odds. Republican Study Committee chairman Mike Pence of Indiana is media-savvy but considered—egad!—perhaps too conservative. Virginian Tom Davis, Reynolds’ predecessor at NRCC, is thought to be extremely smart but may well be too liberal. Eric Cantor, another Virginian and the deputy majority whip, is probably too junior to make a run at the top leadership and may have been overly vociferous in his support of DeLay. Californians Christopher Cox and David Dreier are more likely to make a later run for speaker than to angle now for the No. 2 slot.
Placing bets: DeLay still may ride this thing out. Bush has never much liked him, but DeLay is undeniably good at his job, and other Republicans know there will be repercussions if they cross him. Democrats, who are hopeful DeLay’s troubles might damage Republicans in the midterm elections, seem ambivalent about his potential departure. But if the furor over the DeLay scandals continues to intensify—and more Republicans suggest he should step aside—someone else in the House will rise as DeLay falls.