The spreadsheet, bristling with million-dollar totals, jumped from flat screen to flat screen last winter in the Washington underground of fund-raising consultants and political-action committees. It had been created by allies of Congressman John Boehner, an Ohio Republican known for massive, raucous late-night parties. A window into the science of the shakedown, the spreadsheet calculated the "efficiency" of fund-raising committees headed by various leaders of the House, showing which were most generous to other Republicans. Boehner's backers were thrilled when the widely forwarded spreadsheet produced a front-page headline in The Hill, a newspaper focused on Congress, saying BOEHNER BOASTS OF BIG BUCKS. Eight months later, his team smiled again when the paper ran a list of Boehner's "K Street Cabinet," loyal lobbyists and other power brokers who would help run the show if he achieved his longtime ambition of becoming House Speaker or majority leader. With Tom DeLay's machine still in charge of the Capitol, those were the credentials that would get an aspiring lawmaker taken seriously.
Now, a few indictments and plea agreements later, the political landscape has shifted mightily, and Boehner is seeking to replace DeLay by running for majority leader as Mr. Clean, an outsider bent on shaking up the system that superlobbyist Jack Abramoff mastered and that then snarled him and, so far, mainly the Republican Party in scandal. "Boehner Outlines Plan for Reform, Renewal and Changing the Status Quo," blared a statement Boehner issued less than 48 hours after DeLay announced he would not seek re-election to the House's No. 2 post. "We're kind of stuck in neutral, and we need to renew ourselves," Boehner told TIME.
But will that renewal be more than cosmetic? DeLay's announcement, marking the rueful surrender of a warrior who once wielded such unquestioned power that no bill could reach the President's desk without his assent, touched off a furious scramble at the Capitol among ambitious members who want a leadership seat when the music stops on Feb. 2, the date set for internal House G.O.P. voting. The election falls two days after President George W. Bush's planned State of the Union address and could do as much to define the Republican Party at the start of the midterm election year as any pronouncement from the White House. "If we don't get our act together," says Representative Ray LaHood of Illinois, "we'll be the minority party next year."
A loss of 15 seats in November would leave Bush with a Democrat-controlled House for the final quarter of his presidency, which his advisers believe could mean a nightmare of gridlock and investigations into Administration decisions and activities. In perhaps an even worse scenario for Bush's legacy, one of the city's best-connected Republicans said his friends are starting to fearfully consider what he calls the "whole shebang" theory: that the party will hold on to the House this year but just barely, then lose the House, Senate and White House in 2008. Republicans point out that Democrats also accepted money from Abramoff clients and did favors for him, but even those Republicans acknowledge that when the public thinks both sides are dirty, the party in power is likely to pay the higher price.