DeLay Keeps Support

Posted October 8, 2004 at 6:11pm

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) ended a tumultuous week Friday with his current position in leadership apparently secure but his prospects for future advancement less clear.

In the wake of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct’s second public criticism of DeLay in a week, the Texan appears unlikely to receive any challenge to his re-election as Majority Leader when Republicans gather the week of Nov. 15 to begin organizing for the 109th Congress.

While Democrats and some outside groups reacted to the ethics panel’s latest action — a public admonishment of DeLay on two elements of a complaint filed by lame-duck Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) — by calling on the Majority Leader to step down from his post, several GOP lawmakers said last week that they did not see any movement against DeLay within his own party.

“I think the level of support for Tom is very high in the Conference,” said Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “There’s clearly a strong rallying around him. The Members see these as election-year charges.”

On Thursday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that DeLay was “unfit to be the leader” of his party, while Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) suggested he “step aside” from his post. A host of outside groups have also begun petition drives or called for the Texan to resign.

Many Republicans said their colleagues felt the instinctive need to support their leader as Democrats attacked, regardless of the relative merits of the charges against DeLay.

One GOP lawmaker close to the leadership contended that Pelosi’s attacks on DeLay and Democrats’ efforts to run against an “unethical majority” had actually prompted some GOP Members to increase their giving to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Referring to Pelosi, the GOP lawmaker said, “I go and say [to Members], ‘This is the alternative.’ I hope she has another press conference.”

But that incentive to rally around DeLay may not still persist if he attempts to ascend to the top leadership post when Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) decides to retire.

“Having the Democrats calling for him to resign may actually strengthen him for Majority Leader,” said a senior Republican lawmaker. “It would be a bigger issue should the Speakership open up.”

Beginning with a hastily called meeting of several dozen GOP Members on Wednesday night, the GOP leadership quickly coalesced around a message that a) expressed support for DeLay; b) claimed that he had been vindicated by the ethics report; c) called for punitive action against Bell; and d) lamented the political pressure that had allegedly been placed on ethics panel members.

In the short term, GOP Members have been nearly unanimous in echoing that message, issuing press releases and stepping up to defend DeLay in several venues. That broad support and the lack of an obvious challenger makes the Texan’s re-election as Majority Leader all but assured, barring some additional charge or an unexpected setback at the polls.

But in the longer term, some Members privately conceded that the cumulative effect of the various controversies surrounding DeLay would likely be an issue if he attempts to become the next Speaker.

Last month, three of DeLay’s political associates were indicted by a Texas grand jury for their use of corporate money to influence the state’s 2002 legislative elections. DeLay was not a target of that investigation and has not been subpoenaed.

However, if any of those three associates chooses to turn against DeLay and he is himself indicted on felony charges, GOP Conference rules would require him to step down from the leadership. If that occurs, according to some lawmakers, DeLay’s chances at the Speakership would be severely damaged regardless of whether the charges were eventually dismissed.

In the interim, Republicans on Thursday and Friday repeatedly suggested that the ethics committee’s unanimous decision to admonish DeLay was the result of outside groups’ efforts to pressure ethics panel members in their districts.

Some Members also complained both that ethics had exceeded its authority in admonishing DeLay and that the panel’s ruling did not offer clear guidance on what behavior is and is not permitted.

“I think the ethics committee has confused the parameters of the issue more than they’ve clarified them,” said Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.).

Ethics Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) defended the panel on both fronts, suggesting that Members would understand the issues better if they read the report carefully and that the committee was within its rights to admonish DeLay.

“It’s not a formal sanction,” Hefley said. “If it is not severe enough to go forward with the next step but you do feel that there’s some impropriety, we do have precedent where we can comment on that.”