House Republicans from across the political spectrum urged their colleagues to make the two announced candidates for majority leader come up with detailed platforms, even as some conservatives said they want a third candidate to emerge.
Meanwhile, two new candidates jumped into the race for the whip post, the No. 3 leadership slot, even though it isn’t technically open yet.
Yesterday’s events indicate that the election to permanently fill the post vacated by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas — the first real contested leadership election in years — could become a full-blown re-evaluation of where the party stands.
Conservative Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, and Rep. Charles Bass, New Hampshire Republican and a leading centrist, wrote a letter urging colleagues not to commit to a candidate because neither Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri nor Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio has agreed to fundamental changes in the way the House operates.
“We’re asking people to wait and see what the candidates are, force them to come out with their positions,” Mr. Flake said, calling specifically for voting procedure changes and curbs on earmarks, the special pork projects members put in spending bills.
Mr. Flake said he is hoping for a third candidate, possibly Rep. John Shadegg, Arizona Republican and a favorite of conservatives. Mr. Shadegg has not ruled himself out.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, also said a third candidate must emerge because Mr. Blunt, the current majority whip and acting majority leader, and Mr. Boehner, a committee chairman and former Republican Conference head, could be seen as part of the present leadership and thus tainted by recent scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
“I feel that both those men are very capable, but we need an individual that does not have any ties to the leadership,” Mr. Jones said.
Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and the influential chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), announced yesterday that he would not run for a position but said he wants the candidates to make their pitch at an RSC retreat later this month.
Mr. Flake said the race could change even if one candidate claims to have locked up enough support before then.
“This Abramoff stuff is still a breaking story,” he said. “One could have the commitments, but one press story could change that.”
Some rank-and-file Republicans have called for new House leaders across the board and have even suggested that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, must show he is willing to reform House operations or risk losing his position.
Rep. Anne M. Northup, Kentucky Republican and a supporter of Mr. Boehner, said Mr. Hastert is safe but the rest of the team needs to change.
“He needs different people at the table with him,” she said.
She said that the seniority system has been allowed to “hogtie” Congress and that outside interests have too much influence.
Mr. Boehner yesterday released a 37-page document he sent to colleagues promising “a majority that’s not satisfied with surviving from one election to the next — a majority that is determined to take on big problems and solve them.”
Rep. H. James Saxton, New Jersey Republican, said Mr. Boehner did an excellent job when he was conference chairman.
“My district staff still talks about the support people on my staff got from John’s organization,” Mr. Saxton said, adding that Mr. Boehner is a needed change in leadership given the public perception of Republicans right now.
But Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., Florida Republican, said Mr. Blunt “has an insurmountable lead at this point” and was untainted by recent scandals.
“Roy, as far as I know, hasn’t been mixed up with any of the things that would in any way disqualify him,” Mr. Shaw said. “He’s earned the right to move up the ladder.”
Mr. Blunt also appears to be winning the support of centrist Republicans.
“Roy is a Midwestern conservative,” said Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut. “He understands that a Republican in Connecticut is different than a Republican in Missouri, and there needs to be room in our party for both. Roy has done a good job of reaching out to moderates and conservatives alike.”
In the race for whip, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the appointed chief deputy whip, claims 140 supporters — more than the 116 needed to form a majority of the 231-member conference.
But Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas and Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan both announced their candidacies yesterday.
“We can go with the status quo, which could lead down the road to the minority, or we can take a different path,” Mr. Tiahrt wrote colleagues, while Mr. Rogers said Republicans’ accomplishments are being overshadowed by news of “political corruption and scandal, and government growing at unsustainable rates.”