House Republicans played musical chairs in their search for new leaders as conservatives outside of government promised to “retake America.”
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, relinquished his leadership slot Thursday, clearing the way for Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia to become the chamber’s No. 2 Republican.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve liked being in the middle of things,” Mr. Blunt told reporters. “Now somebody else can bring a new bag of tricks on to the floor.”
In addition, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas dropped out of the race for Republican Conference chairman, the party’s No. 3 slot, while Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana joined the race for that post, with the blessing of Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio.
On the Senate side, the questions centered on Democrats and whether Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, will continue to be a member of his former party’s caucus.
Mr. Lieberman, who spurned Democrats and backed Republican Sen. John McCain in the presidential race, met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for 45 minutes Thursday to talk about his role, then called a Capitol Hill press conference to tell reporters he was “considering his options.”
But with Democrats gaining at least six seats in the Senate in Tuesday’s elections Mr. Lieberman is no longer the tie-breaking vote giving Democrats control of the chamber, and his support is seen as less valuable.
Mr. Reid issued a terse statement about the meeting, which noted the hard feelings among Democrats after Mr. Lieberman not only crossed party lines in the presidential race but also disparaged the Democratic contender, President-elect Barack Obama.
“While I understand that Senator Lieberman has voted with Democrats a majority of the time, his comments and actions have raised serious concerns among many in our caucus,” Mr. Reid said.
At his press conference Mr. Lieberman hustled from the stage without taking questions as reporters called out, “What options?” Reporters pursued him, but he escaped into the recesses of the Capitol.
Outside of the halls of power, a group of conservative activist leaders met Thursday to plot strategy free of the constraints of having to defend President Bush or their presidential candidate, Mr. McCain.
“We are not going to be looking to the GOP for leadership. We will march to our own drummer. The GOP leaders can join us whenever they feel like joining us,” said Richard Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, who attended the meeting.
Pollster Kellyanne Conway said the election results weren’t a rejection of conservative values, pointing to marriage amendments that passed in Arizona, California and Florida.
She said the group spent little time talking about Mr. McCain or Mr. Bush, and decided that rather than look for a candidate now to back in the 2012 presidential contest, they will instead craft a job description and see who meets it.
“The conservative movement is going to retake America,” said L. Brent Bozell, president of Media Research Center, who hosted the meeting. He said conservatives would build new grassroots organizations and try to match Democrats’ advantage in the use of technology.
Even as conservatives vowed not to be tethered to the Republican Party, House Republicans were trying to push the leadership in their direction.
Mr. Boehner, who is currently unchallenged for his leadership post, has invested political capital in trying to shape the rest of the leadership team, including backing Mr. Pence.
He also waded into a bitter battle for the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee, saying he wants to see Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas lead the House Republicans’ campaign arm, rather than the incumbent chairman, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
In stepping down, Mr. Blunt becomes the second top leader to give up his post, following the previous No. 3 Republican, Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam of Florida.
The whip’s job is to count noses and corral Republican votes on key issues. Mr. Blunt has held the job since taking over when former Rep. Tom DeLay became the Republicans’ House leader in 2003.
Mr. Cantor has been Mr. Blunt’s chief deputy since then, and his ascent was expected once Mr. Blunt gave up the reins.
Mr. Blunt said he wrote himself a letter in January 2007, after Republicans lost the majority to the Democrats, that spelled out his intention to recapture the majority in 2008 or else step aside as minority whip. He opened the letter Wednesday, he said.
“I think my instincts two years ago were right,” Mr. Blunt told reporters at an informal press conference at his Capitol offices.