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GOP Scoffs at Charges

House Republicans, both in public and private, are trying to rally their colleagues to support embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who is under fire for controversial trips he took to Moscow, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

DeLay on Wednesday reiterated his view that the “liberal media” and Democrats are out to embarrass and defame him as a means of undermining the entire conservative movement, a defense he has relied on more frequently in recent weeks.

A top House Republican, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), hinted on Wednesday that GOP lawmakers may seek to retaliate against Democrats over the DeLay travel scandal, suggesting that similar scrutiny should be given to comparable trips taken by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), her staff and other Democrats.

Blunt said support for DeLay among House Republicans remains solid, despite continued reports that foreign trips taken by DeLay may have been underwritten by corporate interests at the behest of former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, or former DeLay aides-turned-lobbyists, including his one-time chief of staff, Ed Buckham.

“The support for the leader is strong,” said Blunt. “I don’t see any waning in support for the leader. I think a lot of Members think he’s taking arrows for all of us.”

Blunt went on to suggest Pelosi’s votes in Congress might have been affected by firms from which she has received campaign donations and political support.

“If you want to go back into Nancy Pelosi’s travel records and link it to any vote she ever made, you can do that,” said the Missouri Republican. “Maybe somebody needs to.”

Pelosi on Wednesday said that Republicans act as if they are “above the law,” and she has repeatedly called on the House ethics committee to initiate its own investigation of DeLay. That panel has been unable to organize since the beginning of this Congress due to a fight over ethics rules implemented by GOP leaders following last year’s probe of DeLay.

DeLay, in an interview with CNN, blamed others for his ethical problems. He claimed his political enemies were distorting the facts about overseas trips he took that had been paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative organization. Abramoff was on the board of that group until last year.

“It’s just like trips that every Member takes,” DeLay said. “I can’t, no Member can be responsible for going into the bowels of researching what this organization [is], how it gets its money or how it is funded. The rules say if it’s a legitimate organization that funds the trip and it’s reported, it’s legal. We know what is going on here.”

DeLay added: “What’s going on here is a concerted effort … to twist the truth and make it look seedy, and it’s just not true.”

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (Kan.) was one of several GOP lawmakers who stood up during a closed-door GOP Conference meeting on Wednesday to speak out in DeLay’s defense.

Tiahrt said DeLay is under fire because he is the most high-profile Republican in the House, and echoed the idea that the controversy surrounding DeLay’s overseas trips could befall any Member.

“This is an attack not just on [DeLay] but an attack on all of us, on all of our leader,” said Tiahrt, according to GOP sources who attended the meeting. Tiahrt’s office later confirmed his comments. “We need to stand together and support Tom. No laws have ever been broken.”

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) said he stood up at Wednesday’s meeting to make the point that DeLay was being “attacked” in a “coordinated effort involving liberal Democrats and liberal reporters and liberal newspapers.”

Weldon was referring to a report in The New York Times on Wednesday that stated that DeLay’s wife, Christine, and daughter, who is also his campaign manager, have been paid more than $500,000 since 2001 by his PACs and campaign committee. Weldon said DeLay had told him personally that his wife and daughter did significant political work for him and that the amount he had paid them represented only a fraction of the total money raised and spent by those organizations. Roll Call first detailed the arrangements in May 2003.

Weldon said he had first-hand knowledge of the effectiveness of DeLay’s daughter, Danielle DeLay Ferro. He said that Ferro had done yeoman’s work in helping to bring her father to a Weldon fundraising event in Orlando last year.

“I think this is death by a thousand cuts, and we need to really rally around him,” Weldon said. His speech was described as “emotional” by Republican sources who witnessed it.

Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio), who has come under criticism for his own ties to Abramoff, told his fellow Republicans that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) was behind the attacks, said a GOP source, and that the effort to unearth ethics violations against the Majority Leader was part of a broader Democratic offensive against the GOP leadership.

DeLay said after the meeting that he had gotten “an incredible show of support” from his colleagues during the gathering.

The latest revelations about the Texas Republican revolve around a 1997 trip he took to Moscow, nominally paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research.

According to reports in National Journal and The Washington Post, a Russian oil company, Naftasib, actually may have underwritten the cost of the trip through a Bahamian-registered corporation, Chelsea Commercial Enterprises.

Abramoff, who then was employed by the firm Preston Gates Rouvelas Meeds LLP, lobbied for Chelsea and was on the Moscow trip with DeLay. DeLay met with top Naftasib officials during the trip.

The National Center for Public Policy Research paid for a trip by DeLay and his wife to England and Scotland in 2000 that has come under heavy scrutiny, although an American Indian tribe and online lottery company linked to Abramoff gave money to the National Center for Public Policy Research on the same day that excursion began.

A registered foreign agent, the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, paid for a trip by DeLay to South Korea in 2001, an apparent violation of House ethics rules. Other Members and aides, including a Pelosi staffer, took trips funded by that organization as well.

Government watchdog groups pounced on DeLay’s latest travel woes.

“For the second time, it appears that a nonprofit group, the National Center for Public Policy Research (National Center), was used as a conduit that disguised the actual source of funds that paid for foreign travel by Representative DeLay and members of his staff,” Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 said in a statement released by the organization.

“House Members and staff are required under House ethics rules to disclose the source of private funds used to pay for their travel. The House ethics manual states that a Member has an obligation to disclose the source of funds ‘that actually pay for travel.’ The ethics manual also advises Members ‘to make inquiry on the source of the funds that will be used to pay for the trip.’”

DeLay and his aides have stated repeatedly since the furor over his trips began that the Majority Leader had no idea of where the National Center was getting its funds and assumed all donations to the group were legal. Amy Ridenour, director of the organization, said it paid for the U.K. and Moscow trips and that those excursions were completely legal and adhered to Congressional ethics rules.

DeLay reportedly told a group of conservative activists two weeks ago that he had a falling out with Abramoff in early 2001 over the former lobbyist’s involvement with gambling interests, including American Indian tribes, although DeLay continued to meet frequently with Abramoff until last year.

Abramoff is at the center of federal and Senate investigations of his lobbying activities on behalf of a half-dozen Indian tribes. The tribes paid Abramoff and Republican political consultant Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide, more than $80 million over a three-year period, and investigators are trying to determine what they did to earn such a huge amount of money.

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