WASHINGTON -- In an upset, House Republicans elected Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio their new majority leader, a move meant to put a new face on a party reeling from ethics scandals that have threatened its congressional majority.
Boehner's victory was a crushing defeat for Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the party whip and acting majority leader, whose close ties to the former majority leader, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, and to business interests proved a political liability he could not overcome. DeLay stepped down from his party post in September after a Texas grand jury indicted him on felony money-laundering charges.
"Today we put the DeLay era behind us, and we start a new era," declared Rep. Ray LaHood, a Illinois Republican who was an early Boehner supporter.
Boehner campaigned on a pledge to lead the GOP's efforts to overhaul House ethics rules and put more distance between lawmakers and lobbyists. His victory made him the instant front-runner to replace House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois if Republicans remain in control of the chamber in 2008, when it is widely expected that Hastert will retire from Congress.
Republicans will "rededicate ourselves to dealing with big issues that the American people expect us to deal with," such as financial issues and security, Boehner promised in a brief appearance with the House GOP leadership after the election.
Blunt waxed philosophical, telling reporters: "Believe me, the world goes on."
But the show of unity came after a closed-door session that members said was tense and highly emotional. Blunt entered the room favored to win after a sometimes nasty three-way race triggered by DeLay's decision early last month not to reclaim his post and overshadowed by the scandal stemming from lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty pleas in federal court to a scheme of fraud and tax evasion.
In the first round of voting, Blunt fell seven votes short of the 117 he needed to win. Boehner garnered 79 votes and Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, the candidate of the most conservative House Republicans, had 40.
The shift in votes from Shadegg to Boehner on the second ballot "was like a tsunami," LaHood said. "The people who voted for Shadegg, who I said were the real reformers, believed that Boehner was going to be the reformer they were looking for," once Shadegg withdrew, he said.
Lawmakers saw Boehner as the best alternative both to Blunt, who was seen as too closely identified with the status quo to credibly remake himself as a reform candidate, and to Shadegg, who was seen as too conservative and too strident in his calls for radical reform.
Democrats have pledged to make what they call Washington's "culture of corruption" a core campaign issue, and while Republicans see Boehner as a reform candidate, Democrats see him as an inviting target.
"John Boehner moved over a chair or two in the Republican leadership's game of musical chairs, but the special interests are still playing the same old tune," Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. "Republicans just voted for one more year that will be exactly the same for the American people as the last five."