Senators Hold Emergency Session Over Schiavo Case
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images file
House Leader Tom DeLay, left, listened to Sen. Bill Frist as they walked through the Capitol last month.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 4/13/2005 4:56:01 PM ET 2005-04-13T20:56:01

The two most powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill are facing make-or-break career decisions in the next few weeks.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas is under fire from Democrats for going on overseas junkets in 1997 that were allegedly paid for by lobbyists and others with business before Congress.

The news reports of the junkets came on top of a series of actions by DeLay last year that drew an admonishment from the House ethics committee.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, who is likely to vie for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, must soon decide whether to push for a change in the Senate’s filibuster rule which has allowed Democrats to block up-or-down votes on several of President Bush’s judicial nominations.

If either Frist or DeLay makes a misstep, it could change the balance of power in Washington, and give Democrats a fighting chance to regain control of Congress in next year’s elections.

'A shadow over the party'
On Tuesday, one Republican, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, told reporters that DeLay's pattern of ethical troubles “tends to cast a shadow over the party.”

Chafee is running for re-election next year and has thrived by being a liberal Republican in a very Democratic state. He disagrees with DeLay on abortion, tax cuts, and most other topics.

It’s not surprising that northeastern Republicans such as Chafee and Rep Chris Shays, R- Conn., are voicing dismay with DeLay. Such criticism is heartfelt and also happens to put them in line with most of their constituents.

Shays’ anti-Delay comments have had the effect of bolstering support for the Texan among the ranks of House Republicans, who regard Shays as giving ammunition to Democratic leaders.

A veteran House Republican aide estimates that DeLay has a two-out-of-three chance of surviving as leader. He said the next three weeks are crucial for DeLay.

What will be significant, he added, is not liberal Republicans such as Shays and Chafee criticizing DeLay but if any conservative House Republican says it is time for DeLay to consider stepping down.

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Democrats want DeLay to stay
One Democratic strategist said it would be better for the Democrats if DeLay did not step down so that allegations were still swirling around him during next year’s campaign.

Democratic leaders have tried to make DeLay’s troubles part of a grand narrative which they call “the arrogant abuse of power.”

They point to DeLay’s involvement in the Terri Schiavo case (even though 47 House Democrats also voted to pass the resolution authorizing a new federal court hearing for Schiavo) and his harsh comments on judges.

DeLay said last month after federal court rulings allowing Schiavo to die that “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today.”

Meeting with reporters Wednesday, DeLay apologized for the tenor of those comments. "Sometimes I get a little passionate…. I apologize for saying it that way," he said.

He also remarked that "I believe in an independent judiciary… The Constitution guarantees the independence of our three branches of government…. I also recognize, however, that Congress has constitutionally mandated oversight responsibility over the judiciary, just like it has over the executive."

DeLay pointed out that Congress has in the past limited federal courts' jurisdiction in some areas and that the House passed a measure breaking up the often liberal-leaning Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which has jurisdiction over seven western states.

When asked whether these steps would be cases of Congress being displeased with court rulings and reacting by taking steps to undermine the courts, DeLay said, “The legislative branch has certain responsibilities and obligations given to us by Constitution. We set the jurisdiction of the courts, we set up the courts; we can un-set the courts, we have the power of the purse, we have oversight over how the courts spend their money...."

DeLay refused to take any questions on the ethical allegations against him, but said he had requested a meeting with the chairman of ethics committee and the ranking Democratic member to explain his side of the junkets story.

Despite the ethics furor, today there are 232 House Republicans, two more than there were in the wake of the GOP’s historic victory in the 1994 “Gingrich revolution.” DeLay deserves much of the credit for expanding the Republican majority.

Nonetheless his troubles could jeopardize that majority and they are rooted in something deeper than ill-advised junkets.

Losing political compass?
Eighteen months ago, eager to persuade the House to enact a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare, DeLay leaned hard on GOP members during the roll call vote.

The ethics committee found that DeLay offered to endorse the congressional candidacy of Brad Smith, the son of Rep. Nick Smith, R- Mich., if Smith voted for the prescription drug bill. The panel said it was “improper” for DeLay to have proposed the swap.

By their votes against the bill, 25 GOP members indicated that they thought DeLay had lost not his ethical compass, but his political compass. Back in 1994, he and other conservatives opposed the Clintons' proposal for a government-run health insurance plan, yet by 2003 he was pressuring members to pass a bill that hugely expanded the cost of Medicare and made conservatives sick at heart.

As DeLay copes with the attacks on him, Frist is struggling to overcome Democratic blockades of Bush judicial nominees.

“We should be given the opportunity to vote, that’s all that we’re asking for,” he said Tuesday.

Frist's admission
Frist made a remarkable admission for a Senate majority leader: in recent weeks, he has allowed the Democrats to get the upper hand in the battle over filibusters.

"We’ve seen over the past three weeks on the other side of the aisle, press conferences, radio addresses, paid advertising on the outside,” Frist told reporters. “I’m not sure exactly how to respond, except that we’re going to be fighting for the principle and we’re going to do it in a way that’s respectful. We need to do a better job… getting information out to all of you (reporters), because as all of you are covering what they (the Democrats) are saying, while I am simply trying to work across the aisle, our voice is being lost.”

Frist said his restrained rhetoric on the filibuster “has allowed the vacuum to be filled by lot of other voices.” He promised a new effort to persuade the public “over the next several weeks.”

In the long run, the battle over the judiciary will have bigger effect on Americans’ lives than the DeLay ethics battle. Thus, by the first week of May, Frist’s dilemma will likely eclipse DeLay’s.

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