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Blunt looks back on his House history; looks forward to future in Senate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 17, 2010 - WASHINGTON - As a former American history teacher, Missouri's U.S. senator-elect Roy Blunt appreciates the traditions of his Senate predecessors and has been getting plenty of advice about how best to emulate them.

Blunt has learned his own lessons in politics and legislative work during the long and winding road of his own career, which has taken him from teaching high school history to becoming a member of the nation's highest legislative body.

He got his first look at politics as a driver during the unsuccessful 1972 campaign for Congress by a fellow Republican from Springfield -- John H. Ashcroft -- who shook off that early loss eventually to become the state's governor, U.S. senator and then U.S. attorney general.

The first campaign was an eye-opener, but 23-year-old Blunt got his first big break 37 years ago when Missouri's newly elected Republican governor, Christopher S. "Kit" Bond, named him Greene County clerk in Springfield. "One of the first people I appointed was a kid from Greene Country named Roy Blunt," Bond recalled in an interview with the Beacon. "I went out looking for the best public servants."

Bond -- a two-term Missouri governor and four-term senator -- says he made the right call in retrospect. When the new Congress convenes the first week of January, Blunt, now 60, will inherit Bond's Senate seat.

The county clerk post in Springfield was a stepping stone to progressively higher offices. By age 30, Blunt had lost the 1980 lieutenant governor's race but later served as Missouri's secretary of state from 1985-1993, falling short in a bid for the Republican nomination for governor in 1992.

That early electoral failure was typical for Republicans in Missouri in those days. "It wasn't unusual to spend at least one race convincing people that you had potential as a candidate," he told the Beacon in an interview. "I lost the lieutenant governor's race in 1980, when I was 30. And then four years later I came back and won the secretary of state's office -- the first Republican in 52 years to be elected to that office."

After working for three years as president of Southwest Baptist University, Blunt returned to politics in 1996 to win an open House seat in Missouri's 7th congressional district. He has served in the House ever since -- but will move to the Senate next month.

Off to a fast start in the U.S. House, Blunt scored a freshman coup by getting a seat on the House Republican Steering Committee in 1997. For the next decade, he enjoyed an almost meteoric rise through the chamber's GOP ranks: Taken under the wing of then-Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, Blunt eventually rose to the position of majority whip in January 2003. After DeLay -- known as the "Hammer" -- stepped down after being indicted on money-laundering charges related to campaign finance in Texas, Blunt became the acting House majority leader in September 2005.

But five months later, after the Democratic minority in the House became increasingly critical of the Bush administration's handling of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Blunt lost his bid to retain the majority leader position. He was defeated in a party-caucus vote by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio -- the man who will become speaker when Republicans regain their majority in the new Congress that convenes next month.

"John and I are friends; we work well together. I think the tone he has set for the new Republican House and the reasonable expectations for one party controlling one part of the government has been just right," said Blunt about Boehner "He's off to a great start."

If he had won that caucus vote and withstood later party challenges, Blunt might have been in a position to become speaker himself -- breaking a long drought for his home state. The last speaker from Missouri, James Beauchamp "Champ" Clark, was a Democrat from Bowling Green, who took office a century ago, leading the House during the tumultuous World War I years, from 1911 to 1919.

In the modern era, the only other Missourian who came close was former U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the St. Louis Democrat who served as House majority and minority leader -- and likely would have become speaker if Republicans had not gained a House majority in the 1994 election that swept Newt Gingrich into that position.

From House to Senate

Two days after the 2008 election, Blunt resigned his minority whip post, saying he could "best contribute to our efforts to regain the majority and advance the interests of the American people in a different role in the 111th Congress."

Republicans did indeed regain a House majority in this November's election, and Blunt's new role in the 112th Congress, which convenes in three weeks, won't be in the House, but in the Senate -- a chamber where Republicans picked up several seats but still remain a minority.

One advantage from his 14 years in the House is that Blunt will enjoy a few steps in seniority above most of the incoming senators in the new Congress. He won't know until January on which committees he'll serve and he likely won't get his permanent Senate office until April -- meaning he and his staff will be stuck in the transition suite for months. "It's the Senate. Who knows when we're going to get our committee assignments?" he said with a smile.

The Senate functions on a strict seniority system, under which the three new senators sworn into office in November after special elections -- including Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. -- will rank as the most senior. They'll be followed by former and future Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who regained his old Senate seat, and then by Blunt. "It puts me about 88 or so" in seniority among 100 senators, Blunt said. "In a system that works by seniority, it's better to be 12th from the bottom than to be at the bottom."

Bond recalls that he started in the Senate in 1987 even lower in seniority -- 99th, sitting near Sen. Mitch McConnell -- now the minority leader - in the rear desks of the Senate chamber. "We used to joke about being seated so far in the back that we could barely see the podium. I think it was Mitch who coined the phrase to describe us: the Not Quite Ready for Prime-Time Players."

Blunt says he jokes with his friend Kirk -- one of Blunt's deputy Republican whips in the House -- about the Illinoisan gaining seniority over the more experienced Missourian. "I'm pretty aggravated about that, which I tell him every time I see him," Blunt laughed.

On the House side, Blunt said that he has an excellent working relationship with the man who unseated him from the top Republican leadership position -- Speaker-elect Boehner -- and he remains a personal friend of the No. 2 House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

Priorities in the Senate

After a hard-fought election campaign, Blunt has had a few weeks to organize his Senate staff and think about the messages sent by Missouri voters. He said he wants to set his priorities based on what he saw and heard during the campaign.

"The No. 1 message from voters in the country was: 'Where are the private-sector jobs?'" he said. The second message he got was another frequent question he heard on the campaign trail: "Why is the federal government spending so much (more) money than it's ever spent before?"

Citing those voter concerns, Blunt says that creating private-sector jobs and holding down government spending will be two of his priorities in the new Congress. "There will be lots of opportunities in both of those areas to pursue better, sounder spending policies and to do the things that encourage private-sector job creation," Blunt said.

He added: "Government jobs don't pay the bill; government jobs are the bill. You need a few of them. But if they get out of place relative to the rest of the economy, the rest of the economy stops growing."

Blunt said he opposed the White House's economic stimulus package because "it was way too much focused on public-sector spending instead of private-sector job creation."

Late Thursday, Blunt voted with the majority of the House in favor of the tax-cut package. "One of the most effective and pressing things we can do to prevent further damage to our economy is to stop a tax hike on Americans in the middle of a recession," Blunt said after the vote. "Missourians are asking, 'Where are the private sector jobs?' The House took action tonight to pave the way for more private sector job creation."

In a statement, Blunt added: "Unemployment is nearly 10 percent and has remained that way for well over a year. The last thing we needed to do in that environment is to allow the largest tax release in history. Our focus in the new Congress must be making these tax rates permanent."

On the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, Blunt joined nine other newly elected Republican senators last month in asking the Senate majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to hold off START votes until they are seated in January.

Contending that "no bilateral strategic arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union or Russia has ever been ratified during a lame-duck session," Blunt and his fellow senators-elect wrote: "Out of respect for our states' voters, we believe it would be improper for the Senate to consider the new START Treaty or any other treaty in a lame duck session." (In spite of their plea, Reid -- mindful of President Barack Obama's own plea for the Senate to ratify START as soon as possible -- is trying to force a vote on the treaty before Christmas. It was unclear whether he will succeed.)

Blunt told the Beacon he looks forward to representing Missouri, in part because "there's a tremendous diversity in Missouri that reflects that of the rest of the country." He said that "gives an advantage in the national discussions that are going on. Because you've seen the same discussions occur in the state that you live in and represent" in Congress.

"If you understand Missouri politics, I think you have a better view of the politics of the country than you would from almost any other state. Missouri really is where the country comes together, politically and economically."

In the weeks since the election, Blunt has talked with all sorts of people and gotten advice from many of them. While Blunt's future senior senator, Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is a political rival who might not be giving him direct advice, her observations on representing Missouri were expressed in her tribute to Bond this week.

"Missourians want a work ethic," McCaskill said. "They want somebody who understands that they are working hard and they want to see you working hard." Pointing out that the state has "strong-minded folks" on both the left and right, McCaskill said finding the political middle -- "a grand and glorious group of stubbornly independent people" -- is important to anyone representing the state.

Viewing Blunt as a hard-working pragmatist, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country, thinks he will be an effective senator. "He's a very low-key person -- not flashy, not posturing -- but with a lot of substance as a legislator," said Akin. "Roy doesn't suffer fools, and he has very good people working for him. He's kind of a lower-key version of Kit [Bond] -- a very pragmatic, logical legislator."

Since the election, Blunt said he has talked with Bond "at length about lots of things, including" Bond's advice about being a senator. "More of our conversations have been about the specific things that Kit's been working for -- encouraging and protecting [them] as a member of the Senate."

A few days after Blunt's victory in November, he and Bond sat down for dinner and the retiring senator gave him some advice. Perhaps Bond passed along a bit of wisdom he got when he first came to Washington in 1987: To be an effective senator over the long term, start out as a workhorse, not as a show horse. Another message might have been the need for bipartisanship, as Bond emphasized in his farewell Senate speech on Wednesday: "The successes we have achieved during my time here have always come because people were willing to reach across the aisle for the common good."

It remains to be seen whether Blunt will take that advice and what path he will take in his 6-year term in the Senate. "I gave Roy the best advice I had," Bond told the Beacon. Asked exactly what wisdom he passed along, Bond said with a laugh: "I'm not going to tell you."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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