WASHINGTON -- After an electoral shellacking widely seen as a message for change in Washington, House Republicans decided yesterday to stick with much the same leadership team as they adjust to becoming the chamber's minority.
The GOP lawmakers elected Reps. John A. Boehner of Ohio as minority leader and Roy Blunt of Missouri as minority whip, rejecting challenges to each by conservatives.
The challengers offered themselves as better able to recommit the party to fiscal discipline, arguing the GOP had strayed from that tenet during the party's 12-year control of the House. Boehner and Blunt won their races by resounding margins.
Boehner, currently majority leader, said he hopes to hold the minority leader's job "for as short a time as possible."
Job No. 1 for him, he said, would be to "earn our way back" into the majority -- which likely would make him the leading contender for House speaker.
He said he would pursue the goal of a GOP rebound by pursuing a return to the party's core principles, including lower taxes and smaller government.
"The rebuilding begins now," Boehner said.
As majority leader, Boehner has been second in the GOP's House hierarchy to Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Hastert, already bruised by criticism that he ignored early warnings of the sex scandal that drove Rep. Mark Foley of Florida from office, decided not to seek a leadership position after his party's election losses. That cleared the way for Boehner, who celebrated his 57th birthday yesterday, to become Republican leader.
Blunt, 56, has been majority whip in recent years.
The rank and file's decision to stick with Boehner and Blunt upset some conservatives who thought the party needed a shake-up after losing both the House and the Senate.
"We're still in denial, I guess," said Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who backed the bid by Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana to topple Boehner.
In the secret vote, Boehner defeated Pence, 168-27.
Comments by some House Republicans indicated that Boehner benefited from being a relatively new member of the party's top echelon -- he became majority leader in February after former Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas was forced to give up his post because of legal problems.
Blunt defeated Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, 137-57, in the contest for the House GOP's No. 2 spot in the new Congress that convenes in January.
Flake and other conservatives pushing for a change of leaders argued that it would have sent a strong signal to disaffected Republicans that, in the wake of the midterm results, "We got it."
Outside of Congress, some conservative activists reacted harshly to the results of the leadership races.
"House Republicans have decided to reward failure," Richard A. Viguerie, a specialist in raising money for conservative causes, said in a statement.
Boehner supporters countered that he understands the need for change in the party's direction.
"We can't be like we were," said Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee. "We got in this rut by being more worried about money and power than the principles that brought us here, and everybody who gets elected today [as leaders] heard that loud and clear."
Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) is a former chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce who was able to work with Democrats on the panel to pass major legislation.
As majority leader, he has won praise from some conservatives for trying to lessen the controversial practice of earmarking -- adding money for local projects to bills, often at the last minute without public notice.
In campaigning for his leadership job, Boehner noted that as the minority, Republicans would no longer enjoy a number of political advantages, such as controlling the agenda and chairing committees.
"We'll need to be innovators instead of gatekeepers; to offer principled and creative responses to Democrat agenda items; to develop and communicate initiatives that our voters find compelling enough to return us to majority control," he said in a letter to colleagues. "We'll need to hold the Democrats accountable for their votes ."
He added: "We'll need to work harder at listening to each other, because without unity, there will be no success."
Rep. Adam H. Putnam of Florida was elected House Republican Conference chairman, the party's third-ranking leadership position. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma was chosen to head the House Republican campaign committee; in that post, he'll assume the major responsibility for attempting to win back the chamber in 2008.
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.