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DeLay Mounts His Defense

After weeks of ethical questions and negative press, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has launched a public and private counteroffensive to repair his image.

On Tuesday, DeLay used his weekly session with reporters to lambaste Democrats and the press, stressing that he welcomed an ethics committee investigation to clear the air. Minutes later at a GOP sponsored event, he delivered a loftily worded policy speech to a packed house that, unusually, was also open to the media.

And late last week, DeLay joined Florida GOP Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Ander Crenshaw in penning a letter to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct that provided further information on a 2001 trip the lawmakers took to Korea that has raised questions about whether they broke House rules.

Republican leadership sources said that DeLay took all of those steps in an effort to reverse a rising tide of controversy that has enveloped the Texas lawmaker in recent weeks.

“This is a clear signal that the Majority Leader is not going to continue to take this and is going to match the facts up against the fiction that’s being written about him,” said a DeLay aide. “Enough’s enough and we’re going to be very aggressive at rebutting these unfounded allegations regardless of where they’re written or run.”

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Roll Call, was addressed to ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.). DeLay, Ros-Lehtinen and Crenshaw wrote it to address questions about the 2001 junket, which was sponsored by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council.

Just days before the trip, KORUSEC registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, a status that prevented the group from legally paying for the lawmakers’ travel.

“This week, we were made aware that the sponsor of a trip we took in August 2001 submitted its registration as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) only two days before the trip began,” the lawmakers wrote.

“At the time the invitation was extended to us, KORUSEC was not registered under FARA. According to the Justice Department, KORUSEC first submitted its registration as a foreign agent on August 22, which was two days before the trip took place. We were therefore as surprised as everyone when this new information was brought to us this week.”

The letter ends by saying, “We are of course happy to discuss this matter with you at your convenience,” and DeLay reiterated that point at his press briefing Tuesday, saying he welcomed an ethics committee investigation into that trip and a 2000 journey to Scotland that has received media scrutiny.

Arranging a session with the ethics committee could be difficult. The panel is currently paralyzed, as Democrats have refused to allow it to organize since the GOP pushed through a House rules change at the start of this Congress that requires a majority of the committee’s members to approve before it can launch an investigation.

While DeLay was solicitous of receiving scrutiny from the ethics panel, he was less charitable toward an March 12 Washington Post story which reported that DeLay’s Scotland trip was indirectly funded by an American Indian tribe and the gambling company eLottery, both of which were opposed to a House bill then under consideration known as the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act.

Soon after the trip, DeLay voted against the gambling bill. But on Tuesday, DeLay strongly criticized the Post and denied that his vote and the Scotland trip had anything to do with each other.

“On Saturday, The Washington Post wrote a story that strongly implied I based a vote on something other than the underlying merits of a piece of legislation,” DeLay said, later adding, “The lack of any factual basis for drawing such a cause-and-effect conclusion like that is why I’m a little less than my normal chipper self this morning.”

DeLay later sidestepped a question about whether he felt he had made any mistakes in regard to the two trips, and about whether he would consider resigning his post. Asked by a television reporter whether he would be willing to make a similar defense of himself on camera, DeLay snapped, “No.”

Last week, DeLay was taken to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for treatment on his previously diagnosed irregular heartbeat. DeLay emphasized Tuesday that the condition was not stress-related.

“You may or may not believe this, but I don’t have stress,” he said. “I don’t worry about things.”

Soon after that session, DeLay keynoted a National Republican Congressional Committee luncheon at the Washington Hilton, using his speech to cast himself as a statesman defending Republican principles against an onslaught of Democratic negativity.

DeLay was introduced by NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who said the Texan “refused to back down from those who oppose the principles of the Republican Party.”

During his 17-minute speech, DeLay quoted a handful of Founding Fathers including Presidents John Adams, George Washington and even Democrat John F. Kennedy to illustrate his support for reforming the Social Security system, protecting the homeland from terror threats and continuing to back the war in Iraq.

“After 10 years of progress — and more than 200 years of history — it’s time for our nation to take its next step in John Adams’ ‘opening scene,’” DeLay said.

He dismissed Democrats as the “party of no” adding: “Without power, ideas or leaders, Democrats have replaced statecraft with stagecraft.”

In the speech DeLay did not directly or indirectly address the recent controversies regarding his overseas travel, but the issue did bookend his appearance.

He arrived late after being called back to the House floor to vote on a privileged resolution offered by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that criticized the Republican leadership for changing some of the rules governing the House ethics committee.

Then, as he was leaving the speech, DeLay was peppered with shouted questions from reporters about the veracity of the allegations against him. He chose not to respond.

NRCC officials said DeLay’s speech had been planned for months. Though it was originally closed to the press, a decision was made to open it after the committee received a number of requests from reporters, said Communications Director Carl Forti.

Pelosi wasn’t the only one seeking a pulpit from which to slam DeLay on Tuesday. A coalition of a half-dozen ethics groups blasted House GOP leaders for the ethics rules changes they pushed through the chamber at the start of this year, and urged lawmakers to endorse Mollohan’s proposal to roll them back.

“The absence of a functioning [House] ethics committee and the collapse of the ethics enforcement process in the House are untenable, unacceptable and irresponsible,” said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21. “House Speaker Dennis Hastert [R-Ill.] has the authority and the responsibility to deal with the House ethics crisis and must do so quickly.”

Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington went further, claiming that Republicans “effectively neutered” the panel in January when Hastert decided to replace Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) as chairman with Hastings, who then decided to replace the committee’s top two staffers. “The [ethics] committee is now officially defunct,” said Sloan, who also said Republican-inspired changes to the ethics committee were “like a well-orchestrated mob hit.”

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