House Republicans elected Rep. John Boehner of Ohio as their new majority leader Thursday, choosing a self-proclaimed reform candidate to replace indicted Rep. Tom DeLay as the party struggles with an ethics scandal.
Boehner, flanked by Speaker Dennis Hastert and other members of the leadership, said Republicans will "rededicate ourselves to dealing with big issues that the American people expect us to deal with" — such as pocketbook and national security issues.
Boehner, a 56-year-old veteran of 15 years in Congress, defeated the front-runner, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, 122-109, after lagging behind his rival in a first, inconclusive vote.
A third contender — John Shadegg of Arizona — withdrew after trailing his two rivals in the initial round of voting.
While Boehner has had feuds with DeLay, Blunt was close to the former majority leader and had served as his top deputy.
But Republicans are clearly worried about their image and the effect of the growing bribery and corruption scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff. DeLay used to rule the House with an iron hand, CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss reports. Now, Republicans seem determined to distance themselves from him.
But Boehner doesn't come with totally clean hands, Fuss reports. He gained notoriety for passing out campaign checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor and takes trips paid for by lobbyists he has helped on bills involving student loans. While others have rushed to return donations from Abramoff's clients, Boehner kept his.
Blunt remains the GOP whip. "Believe me, the world goes on," he said.
"We have a great leadership team," Blunt said. "We're going to work to make the Congress better; more importantly we're going to work to make the country better, and I look forward to working with John Boehner as majority leader to make that happen."
Boehner campaigned as a candidate of reform, promising to curb a process called "earmarking, " which is popularly known as "pork-barrel spending," reports CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger. He said his experience as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee had demonstrated his ability to pass major legislation.
Blunt had been a temporary stand-in for DeLay, who is charged with campaign finance violations in Texas.
After the vote, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., called Boehner "a fresh face."
"It wouldn't be credible for the same leaders to be advocating change," Flake said, adding he hoped Blunt would stay on as whip, third-ranking in the leadership.
The new majority leader was a lieutenant in Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution," and his history is what secured Flakes vote, Borger reports.
"He was part of the revolutionary group that helped with the 'Contract with America' and held up really craft the message that we want to revive," Flake said. "So he's kind of a bridge back to old warriors."
Republicans are at a political crossroads as they work to avoid the taint of scandal from investigations that have already led to the conviction and resignation of Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif. In addition, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, faces scrutiny in a wide-ranging congressional corruption investigation symbolized by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The election was marked by confusion for a time when it appeared that the number of ballots cast exceeded the number of eligible voters by one. It turned out that clerks had left Luis Fortuno, the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, off their list. He is not allowed to vote on the House floor, but does have voting rights in the GOP's internal deliberations.
The party breakdown of the 435-member House is 231 Republicans, 201 Democrats and one independent with two seats vacant. One Republican did not vote in the leadership election.
Blunt's position in leadership had made him the front-runner, but he ended seven votes short of the necessary majority on a first-round secret ballot. He had 110 votes and Boehner had 79. Shadegg received 40 and Rep. Jim Ryun of Kansas, who was not an announced candidate, got two votes.
After Shadegg and Ryun dropped out, Boehner won his second-ballot victory.
It was the most-contested election among House Republicans since the upheaval that followed ethics allegations and election losses in 1998. Eight years later, the GOP hopes to avoid political reversals in midterm elections as it contends with ethics problems anew.
The secret-ballot election capped a 24-day campaign in which Blunt sought to convert his experience as majority whip and DeLay's temporary stand-in into a permanent promotion.
"This is not a party stuck in neutral," he said as the race began, dismissing a claim made by Boehner. "This is an opportunity for reform."
Boehner and Shadegg both cast themselves as outsiders, better positioned to revive Republican spirits and political fortunes in the wake of the Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Democrats watched with interest, ready to pounce on the winner.
"No matter who Republicans elect, it's easy to show they're supporting more of the same ... part of the same pay-to-play system that's made Washington the mess that it is right now," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the House Democratic campaign organization.
The three Republican rivals, all 56, have carved out different careers in the House.
Blunt, who represents a district in southwestern Missouri, had just won his second term in 1998 when DeLay, R-Texas, tapped him to take a place at the leadership table as chief deputy whip.
The two men each moved up one rung on the leadership ladder in 2003 and have worked closely together for years. Jim Ellis, a consultant who was indicted with DeLay last year on campaign fundraising charges, also works for Blunt's political action committee. He has denied all wrongdoing.
Unlike either of his rivals, Boehner came to Congress when Democrats held a majority, and he joined the Gang of Seven, a group of energetic young lawmakers eager to draw attention to a scandal involving the House bank and Democrats.
Boehner won a place in leadership when Republicans gained a majority in 1994, a position that kept him in frequent contact with lobbyists.
But he and DeLay soon clashed, and Boehner lost his leadership post four years later. Boehner became chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee in 2001, and he helped shepherd President Bush's No Child Left Behind education bill through the House.
Shadegg came to Congress from the Phoenix area in 1994, part of the large contingent of newcomers who cemented the first Republican majority in 40 years. He showed an interest in health care and other policy issues, and won election in 2000 as head of an organization of House conservatives, now known as the Republican Study Committee. He later was elected to a junior leadership post.
DeLay, who has denied any wrongdoing, is awaiting trial in his home state on the campaign finance charges he has repeatedly denounced as politically inspired.