After conservatives objected to Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (Ill.) reported plan to make House Rules Chairman David Dreier (Calif.) temporary majority leader to replace the indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (Tex.), House Republicans followed in-house rules and the traditional chain-of-command by elevating Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) to the position.
At the same closed-door meeting of the Republican Conference where this decision was formalized, Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) was elevated one spot to temporarily take Blunt’s job as majority whip.
When Blunt, Cantor and Hastert met with reporters following the meeting, Dreier conspicuously joined them. Even though Dreier will hold no official leadership post, Hastert told reporters, he “will help move the agenda through the House floor.”
The late afternoon announcement was sharply different from what had been rumored around Capitol Hill only hours before. When news of DeLay’s indictment broke, it was widely believed Hastert would ask his colleagues to bypass Blunt in the Republican chain of command and make the 54-year-old Dreier acting majority leader. As one Republican lawmaker told me later that day: “This was just like all those reports I read that the President would name that lady [Appellate Judge Edith Clement] to the Supreme Court, and he named John Roberts.”
Earlier this week, with DeLay’s indictment by an Austin grand jury appearing imminent, DeLay and Hastert reportedly agreed Dreier would become the stopgap majority leader, holding the position only until DeLay is vindicated in court. A Hastert aide sounded out Dreier, with whom the speaker has a close friendship and had personally tapped for the powerful Rules chairmanship.
But following DeLay’s indictment and rumors of the Dreier-for-Leader plan, conservative Republicans began to make known their opposition to elevating Dreier. A meeting of the conservative Republican Study Committee (held, ironically, in HC-5, which would become the site of the full conference meeting later that afternoon) produced “near-unanimous opposition to Dreier,” according to a source who requested anonymity. While Dreier usually votes conservative (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92%), many House conservatives did not want a leader who voted for funding for embryonic stem-cell research, against an amendment to ban same-sex marriage, who supports hate crimes legislation and has been soft on illegal immigration.
At one point during the Republican Study Committee meeting, Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.) vowed to nominate RSC Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) for majority leader if Hastert called for Dreier’s election.
By the time the meeting of the full conference commenced, sources told me, the speaker had gotten word that his support for Dreier would spark a conservative revolt. Accordingly, Hastert pulled back from his original plan and called for Blunt’s elevation.
Better Than FEMA
But conservatives made their feelings known about the maneuvering designed to pass over Blunt for Dreier. Wamp made what one House staffer called an “impassioned” speech calling for respecting the usual order of succession in the House hierarchy and challenging the idea of someone outside that hierarchy taking a key position.
“A resolution will pass calling for Roy Blunt to be acting majority leader and that’s the way it should be,” Rep. Ray LaHood (R.-Ill.) told me upon leaving the conference meeting. Asked about rumors of a revolt and how far the “Dreier deal” went, LaHood suggested the press had it wrong from the start and there was no other plan other than moving up Blunt. That was not what some other Hill veterans told me. When I asked Rep. Tom Davis (R.-Va.) if there was anything to an original plan to restore Dreier, he told me: “Apparently, there was.”
Possibly the best post-mortem on the change in GOP leadership came from liberal Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R.-N.Y.). Commenting on how the Republican Conference dealt with DeLay’s indictment, Boehlert told me: “We were better prepared for disaster than FEMA.”