The indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) by a Texas grand jury sent shock waves through the Republican Conference on Wednesday, as Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was named to temporarily fill DeLay’s post following the scuttling of Rep. David Dreier’s (R-Calif.) candidacy by conservative lawmakers.
DeLay was forced to step down from the Majority Leader position under a Conference rule requiring indicted Members of leadership to vacate their posts. The rule was the subject of controversy at the start of the 109th Congress, when it was initially reversed and then later reinstated amid a wave of bad publicity.
Under the new arrangement, Blunt will temporarily assume the title of Majority Leader and at least some of the duties of that office. Dreier will take on the role of chief leadership liaison with committee chairmen and also will help craft the legislative agenda, though he will not see any formal change in his title and will remain chairman of the Rules Committee.
The same is true of Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who will not receive a formal promotion but will take on some added responsibilities for the Whip’s office.
Despite the upheaval, House Republicans attempted to mount a united front Wednesday, expressing support for DeLay, contempt for Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s push to indict him and confidence that the party would be able to move forward.
“The Conference has to go on,” Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said. “We have work to do.”
Blunt said, “We all believe [DeLay] will return once this indictment is out of the way” and predicted that “all of our team is going to come together like we never have before.”
Republican sources said the unusual new leadership setup — under which Blunt is technically both Whip and Leader — is expected to last at least until January, when the Republican Conference could hold a more conventional vote on who should fill the Majority Leader position.
“The Conference can revisit this at any time,” noted Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio).
Originally, leadership sources said, Hastert had considered installing Dreier in the Majority Leader position and leaving Blunt and Cantor where they were. But that plan ran into trouble early Wednesday afternoon when a group of conservative lawmakers expressed their strong opposition to handing the position to Dreier, who is a moderate on many social issues.
Republican leaders also heard a vocal outcry from outside conservative groups and activists who objected to Dreier’s elevation.
Sources said that at Wednesday’s weekly Republican Study Committee meeting, RSC Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) and a handful of other lawmakers said they would oppose Dreier when he came up for a vote in Conference. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), according to sources, suggested that Pence should be Majority Leader.
Pence’s office declined to comment on his statements during the meeting.
Wamp continued to agitate later Wednesday afternoon during the emergency GOP Conference meeting called to confirm Blunt to the Leader position. Wamp stood and announced that he had a letter signed by several other lawmakers calling for formal elections to be held to fill any open position, but his motion was not seconded.
Wamp has expressed hopes of running for leadership some day, and he said Wednesday that the events surrounding DeLay’s stepping down made him “more committed” to that goal.
“I certainly am planning to run for the Majority Whip’s position if it continues to be open,” Wamp said in a radio actuality recorded by his office, adding that he would run for the Whip job as early as January even if it means squaring off against Cantor.
The new, hybrid leadership structure prompted a good deal of uncertainty in senior leadership circles on Wednesday. DeLay will vacate his office in the Capitol and work out of his personal office in the Cannon House Office Building.
DeLay’s leadership aides who do not join his personal office payroll will remain in the Majority Leader’s office and will technically work for Blunt, though some are expected to assist Dreier as well. Several leadership sources predicted that arrangement could spark some tension, as Blunt and DeLay’s staffs have not always worked together harmoniously in the past.
In advancing Dreier for the post, Hastert hoped to select a respected senior lawmaker who already has leadership experience as Rules chairman.
More importantly, Dreier would have willingly vacated the Majority Leader post if DeLay were to come back, and he is seen as having no further leadership aspirations of his own.
When Hastert first began mulling indictment scenarios during the 108th Congress, he engaged in some initial discussions with senior lawmakers about who could temporarily replace DeLay. But the two most likely Members for the task in Hastert’s original considerations, Reps. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), have both since left the House for Bush administration posts. A third candidate, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), suffers from poor health and already has announced his retirement.
While elevating Blunt may have placated conservatives, it could be seen by some Members as giving him and Cantor an unfair advantage in future leadership races. Cantor is expected to run for the Whip job the next time it becomes vacant, while Blunt could aim for either Majority Leader or Speaker.
Aside from those two and now Wamp, the most oft-mentioned candidates for promotion in the near future National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who could run for any of the three top posts, and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who like Blunt could shoot for either Leader or Speaker depending on the timing.
DeLay himself apparently remained in relatively good spirits throughout Wednesday. Before reading a statement in his office Wednesday afternoon, he joked to the mass of reporters, “You got any news today? Just another day in the office.”
DeLay reiterated his innocence and the allegedly partisan nature of Earle’s investigation.
“I have the facts, the law and the truth on my side,” DeLay said.
He was similarly jocular at Wednesday morning’s Conference meeting before the indictment came down, saying according to one attendee, “My staff is going to kill me if I say this — I’m guilty of a conspiracy to defeat Democrats.”
DeLay received a standing ovation at that morning meeting. He received word from his staff that the indictment had been handed down at approximately 12:15 p.m., and announced he was stepping down from his post before 1 p.m.
Democrats were quick to pounce on the news as further evidence that Republicans are ethically challenged.
“The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
In a private Member meeting Wednesday, Pelosi reminded her Caucus that the DeLay indictment is just the latest in a string of Republican ethics problems, sources in the room said. Pelosi told Members that as events unravel, they should focus not just one lawmaker, but on the Republican Party as a whole.
“He is one of many,” one high-level source said of Pelosi. “The culture of corruption is real. We should focus on that, not just DeLay. That is just another pillar in the argument.”
Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.