This coming week promises to be critical for both Republicans and conservatives in moving forward into the second half of George W. Bush's administration.
If conservatives are to shape an agenda and drive true change in the GOP, who Republicans select to lead their caucus in the House of Representatives and how the Senate vote on Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito goes down will speak volumes. The coming week may well determine not only the outcome of mid-term elections this fall, but national party's future prospects moving into 2008 and beyond.
In the House, supporters of Reps. John Boehner, Roy Blunt, and John Shadegg aren't sure what will play out in the coming days. Blunt, who tried big-footing and bluffing his way to the House Majority Leader slot, has quieted some. "We just don't know where we stand," says one House Republican member who has thrown his support behind Blunt. "We thought we had the numbers, but Shadegg and Boehner have hung tough. I don't think, if we ever had the numbers to win, that we have them now."
What the principles in this race seem to understand is that this election is not just about Majority Leader; in reality, it is a race for the House Speakership.
Boehner in particular has made clear his desire for that post, and his campaign and organization -- including policy papers -- are evidence of the planning that was being put into such a campaign.
"Whichever one of these guys wins the Majority Leader job will be primed for the Speakership when Denny [Hastert] retires or steps aside," says a longtime House leadership aide. "People have been wondering about Denny's desire to hang in there, and there were rumors that we might be looking at a bigger election than we are already looking at."
That was one reason why rumors have persisted that a deal exists between Reps. Boehner and Shadegg should the election play out as they hope: Boehner runs a close second to Blunt, with Shadegg denying Blunt enough votes to force a second ballot, and Shadegg then throwing his support behind Boehner. Presumably, Shadegg would then be positioned to become majority leader if Boehner became Speaker.
If nothing else, Boehner, Shadegg and other conservatives have done a good job of tarring Blunt with the "insider" label and as someone with more of a Jack Abramoff taint than Boehner has. That has given the man from Ohio a slight edge for weeks, and an advantage coming into the week.
Beyond the House majority leader slot, there may be other positions opening up sooner than expected. Deborah Pryce is thought to be in danger of losing her leadership position as chairman of the Republican Conference, possibly to Marsha Blackburn, one of the leaders of the anti-spending movement late last year.
Blunt has not indicated whether he would step down as Whip, a position he still holds, though should he lose the House leader race, expect to see mounting pressure for him to step aside.
Beyond the "insider" label, Blunt has been hit -- rightly, according to House Republicans -- for allowing Rep. Tom DeLay's well-oiled Whip organization to become less than a smooth operation.
"One of the first things the new leader will have to deal with is a caucus that has become far less united than it was even a year ago," says another House member. "We're all going to have to fall behind our new leader and focus on fixing our caucus. The Democrat caucus isn't in any better shape, in fact it is probably worse. But this has to be about us first."
IN THE SENATE, while Democrats put out word that they support a filibuster against Samuel Alito, Republican Leader Sen. Bill Frist has a war room set up to launch the "Constitutional Option" and put Alito in the seat he rightly earned by enduring the lectures of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It wasn't an exaggeration to say that Sen. John Kerry announced his plans for a filibuster from the slopes in Davos, Switzerland. At the time that he spoke with his staff in Washington about just how he should be positioning himself, he was in the midst of also coordinating an afternoon of skiing.
The filibuster drive wasn't a Kerry plan, though. That credit rightly goes to Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose staff has been the most active in both attempting to smear Alito and to throw roadblocks in the nomination process. According to Senate Judiciary Committee staff on the Democrat side, Kennedy's people have been looking at how to filibuster Alito for weeks, watching vote counts and trying to pick off enough liberal Republican support to make any Democrat defectors a wash for Republicans.
In the end, though, little of the Democrat shenanigans matter. Frist and his leadership team appear poised to trigger the parliamentary strategies that will have Alito in his Supreme Court seat by the beginning of February.