WASHINGTON -- House Republicans, fearing a voter backlash over the influence-peddling and campaign finance investigations that knocked Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, from his leadership post, are hoping that whomever they choose as a replacement will help distance them from the scandals.
But they are running into a problem. The people competing to succeed DeLay have links to some of the same lobbyists and fundraising machinery that have put him, and the Republican Party, in political peril.
Anxiety over the scandals - which center on a federal investigation of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his ties to lawmakers and some of their senior staff members - has turned what is usually an insular race for the post of House majority leader into something much more: a test of how far Republicans are willing to go in clamping down on the lobbying and fundraising practices that have helped the party maintain its dominant position in Washington.
The leading candidate, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, has strong ties to some of corporate America's most powerful lobbyists - and is married to a lobbyist for the parent company of Phillip Morris and Kraft. His political action committee received $8,500 from Abramoff and his wife, although Blunt announced this month that he would donate that amount to charity.
Blunt's leading rival, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, played a key role in the party's effort to systematically build stronger ties to the business and lobbying community.
Yesterday, a third candidate entered the race, positioning himself as someone free of the lobbying ties that are so identified with Blunt and Boehner. "I believe that we need a clean break from the scandals of the recent past," Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona said in announcing his intention to vie for the leadership post.
But Shadegg, a fiscal conservative, has his own ties to clients and associates of Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this month to federal charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation into his ties to lawmakers and staffers, raising fears in Congress that more Capitol Hill figures could face charges.
The day before Shadegg entered the race, the Arizona Republic revealed that in December he had given back or donated to charity more than $6,900 in campaign contributions from Abramoff's clients and associates; one of the contributions, the newspaper said, had been undisclosed for five years - in violation of federal campaign-finance rules.
Michael Steel, Shadegg's press secretary, confirmed the violation but said the failure to disclose was a clerical oversight. He argued that the lawmaker's ties to the lobbying world are far less extensive than those of the other two candidates.
Republican strategists agreed yesterday that Shadegg's entry into the race had changed the dynamic, making the question of ethics and lobbying reform more central. "It throws it wide open," said one Republican strategist close to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
Republicans have scheduled their leadership election for Feb. 2, after members return from their winter break. At the moment, they are electing only a majority leader, the second-most-senior post in the House and one that could position the winner to run for House speaker. Some members, however, are pushing for broader elections that would encompass five other leadership posts.
The position of Blunt and Boehner as front-runners is due in part to the quirky way congressional leaders are chosen: They are elected by their peers based not on ideology or even their public image, but largely because of personal ties, calculations of self-interest and accidents of geography.
Blunt and Boehner built their power bases through vast fundraising efforts and have links to Abramoff's associates and clients. Their ascent demonstrates how deeply DeLay's influence has reached into and reshaped the party: He fostered an environment in which, in order to get ahead politically, lawmakers have had to aggressively raise money, contribute to other lawmakers and cultivate ties with the lobbyist and trade associations that line Washington's K Street corridor.
"Anybody at this level has gotten their hands dirty, some more than others," said a Republican lobbyist close to both men.