In a move that surprised some observers, House Republicans elected Rep. John Boehner of Ohio–chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and a long-time education advocate–as their new majority leader on Feb. 2.

The ascension of Boehner to majority leader could bode well for school stakeholders, especially at a time when President Bush has called for further cuts in education spending (story, Page One), because it elevates in power someone with proven leadership on education issues.

In electing Boehner, Republicans chose a self-proclaimed reform candidate to replace indicted Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, as the party struggles with an ethics scandal. Boehner, flanked by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and other members of the leadership, said Republicans will “rededicate ourselves to dealing with big issues that the American people expect us to deal with”–such as pocketbook and national security issues.

Boehner, a 56-year-old veteran of 15 years in Congress, defeated the Republican front-runner, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, 122-109, after lagging behind his rival in a first, inconclusive vote.

While Boehner has had feuds with DeLay, Blunt was close to the former majority leader and had served as his top deputy.

Blunt remains the GOP whip. “Believe me, the world goes on,” he said.

“We have a great leadership team,” Blunt said. “We’re going to work to make the Congress better; more importantly, we’re going to work to make the country better, and I look forward to working with John Boehner as majority leader to make that happen.” Boehner campaigned as a candidate of reform, and said his experience as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee had demonstrated his ability to pass major legislation.

Blunt had been a temporary stand-in for DeLay, who is charged with campaign- finance violations in Texas.

After the vote, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., called Boehner “a fresh face,” adding, “It wouldn’t be credible for the same leaders to be advocating change.”

Republicans are at a political crossroads as they work to avoid the taint of scandal from investigations that already have led to the conviction and resignation of Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif. In addition, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, faces scrutiny in a wide-ranging congressional corruption investigation symbolized by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The election of a new majority leader capped a 24-day campaign in which Blunt sought to convert his experience as majority whip and DeLay’s temporary stand-in into a permanent promotion.

Blunt, who represents a district in southwestern Missouri, had just won his second term in 1998 when DeLay tapped him to take a place at the leadership table as chief deputy whip. The two men each moved up one rung on the leadership ladder in 2003 and have worked closely together for years. Jim Ellis, a consultant who was indicted with DeLay last year on campaign fund-raising charges, also works for Blunt’s political action committee. He has denied all wrongdoing.

Unlike either of his rivals, Boehner came to Congress when Democrats held a majority, and he joined the Gang of Seven, a group of energetic young lawmakers eager to draw attention to a scandal involving the House bank and Democrats.

Boehner won a place in leadership when Republicans gained a majority in 1994, a position that kept him in frequent contact with lobbyists.

But he and DeLay soon clashed, and Boehner lost his leadership post four years later. Boehner became chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee in 2001, and he helped shepherd President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill through the House.

DeLay, who has denied any wrongdoing, is awaiting trial in his home state on the campaign finance charges he has repeatedly denounced as politically inspired.

In accepting his new role as House majority leader, Boehner will be forced to relinquish his role as the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. At press time, no replacement had been named.