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DeLay Adjusting to His New Role

From the moment he wakes up each day, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) can tell the difference between his new job and his old one.

“Most Members, when they get up in the morning, they have to worry about their one vote,” DeLay said in an interview last week, recalling his not-so-distant past as Majority Whip. “When I got up in the morning I had to worry about 218.”

Now, when he gets up in the morning, DeLay said he thinks about “making sure the policy is right.”

The contrast continues as the day goes on, as the man now in charge of the House floor calendar finds that his own schedule is lighter.

“The time management is a little bit easier,” DeLay said. “When I was Whip for eight years I spent all day long working with Members and meeting with them and talking to them on the phone or personally, often into the wee hours of the night. And now my job doesn’t require that I spend that much time with Members so I can do the things I really enjoy. I enjoyed counting votes but I like strategy, planning and policy and I have more time to deal with those kinds of things.”

While DeLay always played a significant behind-the-scenes role in shaping the GOP’s agenda and tactics, the Texan now finds himself more often in the media spotlight, commenting on everything from the potential war with Iraq (he supports it), the French (they annoy him) and Rep. Jim Moran’s (D-Va.) recent controversial comments (he thinks Democrats are hypocrites).

Yet DeLay says he would just as soon not have to deal with the media as much as he has in the past two months.

“To be honest with you, I don’t enjoy doing press,” he said. “It’s not because of the people, the journalists. It’s just that I’m not very good at it. I like doing things I’m good at.

“Obviously I know it’s part of my role. But then each leadership position is defined by the person who holds it. It’s not defined by a job description. … When our communications shop is trying to do something, I ought to be the first one out there carrying the message and saying it the right way so others can see it.

“On the other hand, too, I’ve got certain issues that are important to me that I’m going to drive. That all requires that I deal with the press.”

When he’s not in front of a camera, DeLay spends much of time now working with committees rather than rank-and-file Members, meeting with chairmen on a weekly basis.

Those meetings allow him to ride herd on the panels, as quick markups will be necessary if the GOP leadership hopes to fulfill its ambitious agenda, which DeLay said included finishing the budget by April 15 and chasing the elusive goal of finishing the appropriations process on time.

DeLay plans to push hardest for passing a comprehensive energy bill, pressing chairmen of the relevant committees to finish their markups by the end of the month so a bill can be on the House floor by April 1.

[IMGCAP(1)] DeLay said the Iraq situation and skyrocketing energy prices make quick passage that much more of an imperative. “We tried to make that case when we passed it two years ago, but the Senate didn’t cooperate in the conference committee. Now, if it were law two years ago we’d be reaping the benefits today from the bill.”

But while the party gears up to pass a bill that its supporters believe will lower energy prices, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) has begun a push to raise gasoline taxes in order to pay for a $375 billion highway bill next year.

That proposal sets the stage for a clash between Young and DeLay, who was highly critical of the idea and of the way the Alaskan and other supporters of the plan have tried to sell it.

“I’m against the gas tax, and particularly right now,” said the Majority Leader. “I don’t think the American people would see it as a ‘user fee’ on top of two dollars a gallon. I think there’s efficiencies that can be found in the highway system. … We ought to look at those things before we even consider raising taxes.”

Just as it affects energy policy, the possibility of war with Iraq threatens to put much of Washington’s usual political activity on hold, but DeLay emphasized that the leadership plans to move full speed ahead on a domestic agenda regardless of whether the United States goes to war.

“The House has always led for the last eight years,” he said. “We’re not going to slow down providing that leadership. We’re not going to slow down our agenda.”

DeLay also argued that any momentum the party might develop would come not from a successful war effort but from President Bush’s overall performance.

“I think the president’s moral leadership — more than going to war, his moral leadership — has provided this political opportunity to get meaningful legislation done,” DeLay said.

While the Republican takeover of the Senate might make things more difficult in some respects — the House can no longer pass ideologically pure bills knowing they’ll never become law — DeLay described the new leadership across the Capitol as a pleasant change from working with a chamber led by Democrats.

“It makes it so much easier that we’re singing off the same songsheet as far as developing the policies,” he said.

Though the new Senate regime has been in place for only a short time, DeLay said he was pleased by the way Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is settling into his job.

“Bill Frist has proven to be an incredibly quick study, and his natural leadership instincts are starting to show themselves,” he said.

While he also praised Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) political acumen and solid conservatism, DeLay saved his kindest words for Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum, paying the Pennsylvanian the ultimate compliment.

“I kid him about being a House Member in Senate clothes because he is so aggressive and so hands-on,” DeLay said.

And while DeLay’s own new role has made him more hands-off in some respects, he has tried to spend as much time as possible on the House floor in order to keep his finger on the pulse of the GOP Conference.

“I still have those Whip tendencies,” he said.

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