WASHINGTON -- Rank-and-file House Republicans launched a push yesterday to require every member of their leadership except Speaker Dennis Hastert to face elections Feb. 2, saying the step is necessary to convince voters the party is serious about ethics and lobbying reform.
Rep. John E. Sweeney, a New York Republican, planned to circulate a petition as early as last night asking for broad elections. The move underscored that many House Republicans believe their leaders need to do more to respond to the unfolding corruption scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff if the party is going to keep its majority in the November elections.
Only days ago, House Republicans appeared set to hold a single election, to replace Tom DeLay of Texas, who had resigned as majority leader, the No. 2 position in the House. DeLay has been indicted in Texas on campaign finance charges unrelated to the Abramoff case.
But under Sweeney's petition, House Republicans would hold elections for five leadership posts in addition to picking a successor to DeLay as majority leader.
"Most of this year, I have felt like our leadership needed new people at the table," said Rep. Anne M. Northup, a Kentucky Republican who normally is supportive of the leadership. "The fact is that they are tired.
"I have not seen evidence of our leadership being able to stand up to special interests," she said. "I think it is important that every person in leadership is on the spot and has to convey to us why they should continue in leadership."
Republican concerns about the political fallout from the lobbying scandal also echoed through the race to replace DeLay as majority leader. That has so far been a two-way competition between DeLay's hand-picked successor, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee.
Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, was said by lawmakers to be close to announcing that he would also run for majority leader, urged on by members who fear that both Blunt and Boehner are too closely tied to DeLay.
"I've talked to Shadegg a number of times," said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. "We'd all benefit if he runs. I think he is leaning in that direction."
DeLay stepped down from the majority leader post in September after a Texas grand jury indicted him on money laundering charges. He had hoped to clear up the Texas charges and regain his leadership job, but that ambition was dashed when Abramoff pleaded guilty earlier this month to attempting to bribe and corrupt members of Congress.
Three former senior DeLay staffers were implicated in the federal case.
Another measure under consideration would end the widespread practice of allowing private groups to fund congressional trips. Political MoneyLine, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics, says that private organizations have spent nearly $20 million in the past five years on trips for members of Congress.
Hastert and other members have in the past defended the practice, saying it saves taxpayers money and helps educate lawmakers about important issues. But trips are being scrutinized by federal investigators as one way that lobbyists and other groups seek to unduly influence members of Congress. One trip that has received press attention is Delay's trip with Abramoff to a luxury golf resort in Scotland in 2000.
Some members said that simply banning such trips does not address the root cause of the GOP's problem as the party prepares to face voters in November: a leadership that, in their view, has allowed ethics problems to go unanswered for too long.
Even as the political jockeying intensified yesterday, each of the front-runners in the race to replace DeLay insisted that he was solidifying his support. Blunt, now the acting majority leader, said he has the public commitment of 62 House members. Boehner, as yet his only declared rival, claimed 39 supporters.
Mary Curtius writes for the Los Angeles Times.