Friday, October 08, 2004

After Ethics Rebukes, DeLay's Fortunes May Lie With His Party's

The New York Times
October 8, 2004

After Ethics Rebukes, DeLay's Fortunes May Lie With His Party's

WASHINGTON, Oct. 7 - While Republicans vigorously defended Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, in the wake of a series of ethics rebukes, members of both parties said on Thursday that Mr. DeLay, a tough-talking Texan who holds a tight rein over the House, could have difficulty retaining his leadership job if his party loses seats in next month's elections.

Democrats and independent watchdog groups, reacting to the House ethics committee's decision Wednesday night to admonish Mr. DeLay for the second time in less than a week, called on him Thursday to resign the majority leader job. But the real test for Mr. DeLay will come next month, when lawmakers return to Washington after the elections to choose their leaders for the next Congress.

The extraordinary back-to-back admonishments, coming little more than three weeks before Election Day, provoked intense partisan recriminations on Capitol Hill, where Democrats regard Mr. DeLay as the symbol of the Republicans' bare-knuckles leadership style and Republicans believe Democrats are gunning for their leader.

A lawyer for Mr. DeLay wrote a 33-page letter to the chairman of the House Rules Committee accusing Representative Chris Bell, the Texas Democrat who filed the second ethics complaint against the leader, of libel. The lawyer, Ed Bethune, who is a former representative, suggested that Mr. Bell be held in contempt of the House for filing a "disingenuous ethics complaint."

Mr. Bell, in turn, accused Republicans of engaging in a "shoot-the-messenger strategy."

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, pronounced Mr. DeLay "ethically unfit," and Democratic leaders vowed to make him a campaign issue. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quickly attacked Representative Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, for a statement praising Mr. DeLay.

"Our candidates are going to talk all over the country about an ethical Congress," Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the Democratic whip, told reporters. Of Republicans, Mr. Hoyer said: "They're afraid that this is going to resonate. I think that's a proper fear."

But he acknowledged that it would take Republican disenchantment for Mr. DeLay to lose his leadership post, as was the case with Newt Gingrich, who faced an ethics inquiry in 1998 but stepped down as speaker only after his party lost seats in the midterm elections. One prominent Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity, echoed Mr. Hoyer's assessment, saying the elections - and not the ethics rebukes alone - would determine Mr. DeLay's fate.

Mr. DeLay has been an extremely effective Republican leader, and though he is not personally close with President Bush, the White House relies on him to push its agenda through Congress. So Mr. Bush is not likely to distance himself from Mr. DeLay, as he did with Senator Trent Lott, the former Republican leader, when Mr. Lott faced political trouble over racially charged remarks.

"Without Tom DeLay it would be complete and total chaos," said one Republican strategist with close ties to the White House. "The House would descend into 'Lord of the Flies.' "

In the Capitol, though, Republicans are keeping a close eye on events in Texas, where three of Mr. DeLay's aides have been indicted in an investigation of fund-raising by one of his political action committees. Representative Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, said that only an indictment would cost Mr. DeLay his leader's job. "I think he'll be elected majority leader unless something happens in Texas," Mr. LaHood said, adding, "Nobody in our conference has even suggested that he resign or step down."

Mr. DeLay himself faced reporters only briefly Wednesday afternoon. He said he was "very pleased" that "these honorable people that served on that ethics committee have dismissed those frivolous charges brought against me"- a reference to the panel's decision to dismiss the most serious charges of bribery and special favors.

Other Republicans, meanwhile, complained that the ethics committee, which reached its decision on Mr. DeLay unanimously and is composed of five Republicans and five Democrats, had been tainted by politics and pressured by outside watchdog groups that helped Mr. Bell file his complaint.

"I don't know why the Republicans went along with this political hatchet job," said Representative Tom Feeney, Republican of Florida.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert called Mr. DeLay "a good man" and said he was "troubled by the intimidation tactics of outside groups and organizations who have tried to influence the decision of those upstanding members of the Ethics Committee."

The remark brought sharp criticism from Representative George Miller, a California Democrat.

"You now have the speaker of the House of Representative becoming an enabler of abusive behavior," Mr. Miller said angrily, adding, "I think this is a very dangerous situation in this country."

Mr. DeLay's brushes with the ethics panel began in 1999, when he was privately rebuked by the committee for threatening to retaliate against a trade group that hired a Democrat as its top lobbyist. Then, last week, the committee admonished Mr. DeLay for pressuring a Michigan Republican, Representative Nick Smith, to change his vote on an important health care bill.

Wednesday's admonishments stem from a complaint filed in June by Mr. Bell, who is leaving Congress because he lost a primary election after a controversial redistricting engineered by Mr. DeLay.

The committee faulted Mr. DeLay for appearing to link political contributions to support for legislation and also for sending federal officials to look for Texas state legislators when they fled to Oklahoma to avoid a contentious vote on the redistricting plan. The panel warned him to "temper your future actions.''

On Thursday, several watchdog groups held a conference call with reporters to urge Mr. DeLay to resign; one, Common Cause, said it would begin a nationwide petition drive calling for his ouster.

"Americans will not tolerate his blatant and repeated disregard for Congressional ethics rules," said Chellie Pingree, the group's president.