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House Republicans pick leader in Feb; Hunter and Issa back Blunt

Both of the San Diego area's Republican Congressmen are publicly backing Missouri Representative Roy Blunt in his quest to succeed Texas Congressman Tom Delay as house majority leader. Blunt's been on the job on an interim basis since a grand jury indicted delay on fraud charges last September. Delay recently announced he's not returning to the post. Blunt's vying with Republican Ohio congressman John Boehner and possibly others to become the next majority leader. House Republicans pick their leader in early February. Chad Pergram reports from Capitol Hill.

Around Christmastime some house Republicans began muttering under their breath that Tom Delay was damaged goods and they couldn't tolerate his return. Democratic San Diego Congresswoman Susan Davis had a theory.

Davis: "What I think may be happening, is there are a number of members who really feel they have been taken along a string of votes that they are not comfortable with. And I think that's what they're reacting to. There are enough moderates here that feel the extreme agenda they've been fed is not appropriate."

Lawmakers who had the most to lose were those indebted to Delay because he helped get them elected, or house committee chairman like Republican Alpine Congressman Duncan Hunter head of the armed services panel when pressed whether the GOP should dump Delay, Hunter was reluctant to weigh in with an answer that could potentially jeopardize his chairmanship.

Pergram: "Some of these questions at the conference, about maybe having leadership elections next year and you as a chairman, do you feel they should just let this thing string out and wait for the trial or what?"

Hunter: "Let me tell ya, I've been focusing on a very bipartisan concern which is protecting our forces in the war fighting theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to protect our intelligence officers and doing what's right for them."

I tried again.

Pergram: "What spawned some of this internicene warfare that we're talking about ?"

Hunter: "Listen, I haven't even seen any internicene warfare. Everything that I've done, our team has been tightly together. The Republican team has been tight."

But not as tight as Hunter liked to suggest. A squadron of Republicans toiled behind the scenes trying to gin up just enough pressure to show Delay the door.

Connecticut Representative Chris Shays wanted Delay out regardless, if he was found guilty or innocent at trial.

Shays: "For him to come back and be the second most powerful leader in congress would just be I think an abomination."

Shays wasn't the only one. Republican Vista Representative Darrell Issa wasn't as vocal as his Connecticut colleague (Shays), but expressed concern about the temporary leadership arrangement.

Issa: "Today we have a temporary position that can't be tolerated in the next year. We have to have somebody who is clearly the leader, somebody who is clearly the whip."

In December, Ron Bonjean Spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois tried to downplay the chatter.

Bonjean: "These are standard Washington D.C. rumors that happen."

But Bonjean changed his tune when Delay stepped aside.

Bonjean: "I think clearly recent news events have propelled Congressman Delay to make his decision to step down because the focus is going to be more around allegations or accusations that could cause the American people to lose their focus and our focus on the agenda."

Congresswoman Susan Davis says Delay's criminal charges, coupled with the bribery conviction of former Rancho Santa Fe Republican Duke Cunningham, posed a conundrum for the GOP.

Davis: "How the Republicans handle this I think is a really good indication of how seriously they take ethical performance in office. It's up to them at this point and we in many ways strongly condemn a lot of the ethical breeches that have occurred."

Now House Republicans are searching for a new leader. They'll vote February second at a private meeting chaired by Republican Ohio Representative Deborah Pryce, the fourth highest ranking member of the GOP hierarchy.

Pryce: "We need a leader above reproach. We need a leader who is not tarnished by any of the problems of the past. We need someone who can go forward and not have to be constantly looking over his or her shoulder."

Sabato: "This is a free-for-all."

The University of Virginia's Larry Sabato is one of the nation's leading political experts. He suspects the February meeting could be rather raucous.

Sabato: "People are waiting to see how the Abramoff scandal develops. They're waiting to see if they get a better idea about who is going to be indicted. This is an uncertain of leadership race as I can ever remember."

Sabato says the debate could expose schisms in the party over ethics and spending. And all of those factors amplify the fact that this election is coming now and not when they're usually held at the beginning of a new congress.

Again Deborah Pryce:

Pryce: "This is the first time this has happened to us. And we don't know what to expect just yet. It could go very quickly or it could be long and drawn out."

And that's the last thing House Republicans want. After all, many believe the Delay debacle was protracted enough. They want finality soon and if Duncan Hunter and Darrell Issa have their way, the next house majority leader will be Missouri's Roy Blunt.

From Capitol Hill. Chad Pergram. KPBS news.

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