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From House to Senate, Blunt prepares for the Big Leap

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2010 - WASHINGTON - His temporary office looks more like a roadside hotel suite than a U.S. senator's domain, but Roy Blunt is clearly enjoying himself as he holds court among a bevy of cell phone-wielding young staffers who populate his busy and crowded transition room in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office building.

After 14 years of toiling in the House of Representatives, Blunt is getting ready to make that transition, the big leap across the Capitol to the tradition-bound Senate -- a chamber, once called the "world's greatest deliberative body," that has become a national stage and a ticket to prominence for many ambitious senators.

Thirty-seven years ago, Blunt got his first big break when Missouri's newly elected Republican governor, a fresh-faced Christopher S. "Kit" Bond, appointed the 23-year-old high school history teacher as Greene County clerk in Springfield, Mo. The two politicians have been friendly ever since, and when the new Congress convenes the first week of January, Blunt, now 60, will inherit the seat of four-term U.S. Sen. Bond, 71.

"I'm looking forward to the Senate," Blunt told the Beacon as he sat at a small, un-senatorial desk in his temporary office. "I enjoyed the House. I appreciate my colleagues in the House, Democrats and Republicans. And I look forward to working with them" from the Senate side of the Capitol.

It's a big step for Blunt, who had been near the point of being written off as a has-been -- in Washington political circles, at least -- after he resigned from House Republican leadership in 2008. Blunt had toiled in the minority after Democrats regained a House majority in the 2006 elections and maintained it two years later, when President Barack Obama won the White House. With a lower profile in Washington, Blunt focused his efforts on winning the Missouri Senate seat in November. Now he has the chance to reinvigorate his legislative ambitions in the higher chamber.

Unlike his Republican predecessors Bond and former U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft -- both of whom made the difficult transition from wielding executive power as Missouri's governor to the legislative grind of being a senator -- Blunt is a veteran of the legislative process and knows his way around the corridors of power in the U.S. Capitol.

Blunt said "it's probably right" that it is easier to make the transition from the U.S. House to the Senate than it is from a governor's mansion to the Senate. "But the Senate's a very different place from the House," he observed. "The majority does run the House. And the Senate ultimately runs on an extraordinary level of consensus or things don't get done." But he added with a grin, "Sometimes not getting things done is a good thing" -- citing the "cap and trade" energy bill that got through the House but stalled in the Senate.

One advantage for Blunt in getting a head start in his new job is that he already knows many of the key players in the Senate, especially the Republican leaders. "I've got good relationships with the members of the Senate, from both parties, who came from the House," he said. During the years when he was the House majority whip, Blunt said he talked "nearly every day for two or three years" with his Senate counterpart -- current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"And I was the House minority whip with [Senate Minority Whip] John Kyl, [R-Ariz.] and we would meet every week, just the two of us, and we'd talk most days."

Acknowledges Blunt: "I come with some understanding of the Senate because of that." He also understands, after years of frustration as a vote-gatherer who helped push legislation through the 435-member House only to see it languish or die in the Senate, that a determined minority with 41 votes can stop nearly any bill in the 100-member Senate. "I got fairly used to that as House member," Blunt said, "because we sent a lot of things over here [to the Senate] that never got anywhere."

Representing Missouri

When the new Congress convenes next month, Missouri's senior senator will be the state's most influential Democrat in Congress, Sen. Claire McCaskill. Blunt and McCaskill have known one another for a long time and -- despite their political and policy differences -- both say publicly that they expect to work together on issues of importance to the state.

"We won't agree on lots of things, but we'll get along fine," said Blunt. "I worked with Claire when I was the secretary of state and she was an effective legislator. And I look forward to finding the things that Claire and I can work together on -- and having an honest disagreement about the things we disagree on."

For her part, McCaskill says that she and Blunt "have known each other for years, since our days in Jeff City together. I know we don't always agree, but I'm looking forward to working with him," she said in a statement.

How often will the Democrat and Republican communicate on state issues? "We've talked, we've visited,'' McCaskill told Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies, explaining that she expects to work with Blunt on a number of important state matters, such as "the China hub, light rail for Kansas City, the University of Missouri, agricultural issues in rural Missouri [and] health-care facilities."

But politics is bound to enter the equation as McCaskill's re-election campaign swings into gear for 2012. While they never faced one another directly in a campaign, Blunt's son Matt defeated McCaskill in the 2004 governor's race, and the family rivalry goes back decades to when Blunt's father defeated McCaskill's mother for a seat in the Missouri Legislature.

It's a political given that Blunt is likely to campaign on behalf of the Republican nominee for the Senate seat. (Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman of Rolla has already announced her intention to run for the office; former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent of St. Louis is considering it; and Blunt's former campaign chair Ann Wagner of St. Louis has not ruled it out if her campaign to become chair of the Republican National Committee falls short in January.)

"I'm sure Roy Blunt will work very hard" for the GOP nominee, McCaskill told Mannies.

"I've been through this before,'' McCaskill said, noting that Bond had campaigned hard for Talent in 2006, a race that McCaskill won. Even so, she said that she and Bond had worked well together on Missouri issues. In the meantime, McCaskill said, she and Blunt both care deeply about Missouri and will work hard -- together -- on the state's behalf.

Blunt is likely to get advice from former Republican senators from Missouri -- notably Bond and Ashcroft, a fellow Springfield politician who has known Blunt since 1972. Ashcroft, who went on to become U.S. attorney general after losing his Senate seat in 2000, told the Beacon that he had talked with Blunt after this November's election and was pleased to see him rise to the Senate.

"Roy got started in politics by driving his pickup truck to my campaign headquarters in 1972," Ashcroft recalled. "He said he'd like to get involved in politics, and I said: 'How much gas you got in that truck?' He said about a half tank, so I said, 'You're my driver tonight.'" Ashcroft added: "From that point forward, we've been involved together in politics."

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