Rep. Roy Blunt, the House of Representatives' second-ranking Republican, stepped down from his leadership post yesterday as the House GOP moved quickly to reposition itself as more conservative, unified and eager to fight Democrats in the Obama era.
The Missouri congressman's resignation came a day after Rep. Adam H. Putnam of Florida, the House's third-ranking Republican, quit his leadership job. Likely to replace them are two combative favorites of die-hard conservatives: Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, expected to replace Blunt, and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, who would take Putnam's place.
Ohio Rep. John A. Boehner is expected to remain as the House minority leader, in charge of a Republican caucus that could lose as many as 26 seats - eight races remain undecided - in the 111th Congress.
House minorities usually have two roles. Their legislative task is difficult, because House rules make it difficult for them to offer alternatives without the majority's cooperation. The other is political, to provide a unified, consistent message in opposition to the majority.
Making that message clear should be the House Republicans' major goal next year, said Michael Tanner, senior fellow at Washington's Cato Institute, a libertarian research center.
"The leadership changes won't mean a lot in getting legislation passed," he said, "but if they have a single, coherent message, it could hurt Obama's efforts to build consensus."
New presidents have found that their legislative paths - not to mention their approval ratings - are easier when they have even token bipartisan support.
President Bush enjoyed Democratic cooperation in crafting his 2001 No Child Left Behind education package, and President Ronald Reagan got vital support from Democrats in 1981 when he sought a 25 percent, three-year tax cut.
But President Bill Clinton suffered in 1993, his first year, when his deficit-reduction package failed to win any Republican backing, a key point that the Republican Party stressed in 1994 as it branded Clinton as eager to raise taxes. Republicans won control of both houses that year for the first time in 40 years.
This time, Republicans appear ready to rally around their own economic ideas, notably that taxes shouldn't be increased and spending should be reduced dramatically.
Democrats will be under strong pressure to pass Obama's tax plan. It would provide breaks for lower- and middle-income taxpayers while allowing 2001 and 2003 cuts to expire on Jan. 1, 2011, for individuals who earn more than $200,000 a year and families that make more than $250,000.
The departures of Blunt and Putnam are a strong signal that economic conservatives are ascending. Boehner is seen as more of a consensus-builder but has long been considered an economic conservative
Cantor, 45, is known for his fundraising skills and his defense of former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas when DeLay faced ethics problems in 2005. Last summer, Cantor was mentioned as a possible running mate for John McCain, and he led the effort to stop some Republican leaders from building a consensus on the financial-rescue package.
Pence, 49, former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, has promoted balanced budgets and has been a vocal advocate for making the Bush tax cuts permanent.
Blunt said yesterday that his departure wasn't sudden.
"In January 2007 I wrote myself a letter and mailed it to my office," he said. He said he wrote that he'd spend the next two years holding Democrats accountable, and "were we not successful in recapturing the majority in 2008," he'd leave his leadership post.