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White House Isn’t Wavering on DeLay

Despite months of negative press coverage aimed at Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the White House remains publicly and privately behind the House Majority Leader, according to informed Congressional and administration sources.

The support for DeLay stands in marked contrast to the White House’s decision to stay silent on Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s (R) controversial comments that ultimately led to his ouster as leader in late 2002.

“The president supports the leader and looks forward to continuing to make great progress for the American people,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

DeLay, according to sources at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, has benefited both from the complexity of the allegations being levelled against him and his status as the key contact in the House for the administration’s legislative priorities.

He has also apparently helped his cause in two important ways.

The Majority Leader brought on GOP consultant Sam Dawson, who enjoys close ties to the White House, and moved quickly to unify conservatives behind him, forcing the White House to break with the party’s base if they wanted him to push him out.

“It was conservatives making and breaking DeLay and Lott,” said one Republican strategist with ties to both the House and Senate.

In recent weeks, the near-constant hubbub surrounding DeLay has died down slightly, although it seems unlikely that it will abate fully any time soon.

Several of DeLay’s political advisers remain under indictment in Texas for skirting the state’s campaign finance laws during the 2002 elections. DeLay has not been implicated in the investigation.

In Washington, D.C., an investigation into whether DeLay violated rules governing foreign travel remains on hold as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct remains deadlocked over staffing and other issues.

The lull in DeLay news of late follows a pattern of boom and bust coverage that has continued since earlier this year.

Six weeks ago, national newspapers were writing two and three DeLay stories a week, coverage led by a Washington Post blockbuster about a DeLay trip to Scotland that was charged — in part — to GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Now, the focus has largely shifted to potential violations of travel rules by other Members, and no new revelations of alleged wrongdoing by DeLay have been produced in recent weeks.

That “trickle” effect provides a major contrast to the explosion of news coverage that began Dec. 5, 2002, at a 100th birthday event for South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond (R).

At the party, Lott said that “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years” if the rest of the country had followed Mississippi’s lead and voted for Thurmond in his 1948 presidential bid, which was based on a segregationist platform.

A week later, amid intense media coverage, Bush said that “any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and is wrong.” The president did not call for Lott’s resignation but also did not offer any words of support.

Contrast that with Bush’s comments at an April 26 Social Security event in Galveston, Texas, at which DeLay appeared; “I appreciate the leadership of Congressman Tom DeLay in working on important issues that matter to the country,” Bush said.

Lott formally stepped down on Dec. 20 — just over two weeks after his initial comments. During that time The Washington Post mentioned his name 123 times; The New York Times had 124.

“The public outcry was pretty swift,” against Lott, said one House Republican leadership aide. “With DeLay you are not seeing the groundswell of condemnation.”

The lack of public outrage stems in large part from the complex nature of the allegations against DeLay.

While a seemingly racist statement is easily digestible, questions surrounding foreign travel or the operations of a state-based political action committee are much more difficult to explain to voters.

“The DeLay controversy is much more complicated,” said a party strategist. “It has taken a long time to penetrate to where the American people would even care.”

Just as the intricacy of the charges against DeLay have largely insulated him from widespread public scrutiny, his prominence in the legislative process has helped keep him in the White House’s good graces.

DeLay meets at least once a week with the White House legislative affairs liaisons to plot strategy and his staff participates in a daily conference call with officials at the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Since Bush won the presidency in 2000, DeLay has been the lead vote counter and organizer for key initiatives of the administration ranging from passage of tax cuts in 2001 to the addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare in 2003.

“Tom DeLay works very hard on behalf of pushing the Bush agenda,” said one House GOP aide.

Another strategist added: “The White House depends on Tom DeLay to deliver its votes.”

DeLay is helped in that cause by the nature of the House, in which even the most fragile of majorities can push through legislation of its choice.

Lott, on the other hand, was often forced to compromise — hamstrung by the ability of even a single Senator to bring the chamber to a halt.

Such deal-making angered many conservatives and even some in the White House, who already had a somewhat hostile relationship with Lott.

“There was some resentment [among] senior White House officials that he was trying to tell them how things were done in the Senate,” said one high-level source familiar with the interaction.

DeLay was careful not to repeat the mistakes of Lott, moving quickly to mobilize the conservative legions on his behalf and seeking to paint the issue in wholly partisan terms.

That effort culminated May 12 in the District, with a gala funded by conservative groups honoring DeLay for his service.

Although neither Bush nor Vice President Cheney attended that event, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman was there and sat with DeLay at the head table. DeLay and Mehlman are personally close and speak on a regular basis.

Dan Allen, a spokesman for DeLay said the Texas Member “appreciates the level of support he has received from the White House as well as from people all across the country who saw the attacks for what they were, a partisan attack on the House majority.”

As for the personal relationship between Bush and DeLay, Duffy insisted that the two are “friends,” adding “they have accomplished a lot together.”

It is an open secret within Washington political circles, however, that while DeLay and Bush are ideological allies, they do not share any real personal connection.

Dawson, who joined the DeLay team as a general consultant in January, has helped to bridge that divide as he shares close relationships with Mehlman as well as White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and political director Sara Taylor.

Dawson regularly speaks with Taylor and Mehlman and provides them with updates on DeLay’s standing, according to informed sources.

“Sam is a good link between DeLay and the White House,” acknowledged one well-connected Washington Republican.

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