House Republicans demonstrated their loyalty to Majority Leader Tom DeLay on Wednesday, changing a party rule that would have cost him his leadership post if he were indicted by a Texas grand jury that has charged three of his associates.
DeLay watched from the back of the room but did not speak as Republican lawmakers struggled in closed session before ending a requirement that leaders indicted on felony charges relinquish their positions. Republicans will now decide a House leader’s fate in a case-by-case review.
The change received overwhelming but not unanimous approval in a voice vote that showed Republicans’ eagerness to protect the leader who raised countless campaign dollars for them. He also engineered a redistricting plan in Texas that caused five Democratic losses through retirement or election defeats.
The dilemma was to shield DeLay in a case that he viewed as political while not giving blanket protection to any leader indicted for a crime that clearly had no political overtones. During the closed debate, which spanned four hours with breaks, someone even questioned whether a leader charged with murder could keep his or her post, according to a House aide who was present. Such questions would be handled in case-by-case review.
There is no indication DeLay will be indicted by the Austin grand jury in a probe led by a Democratic prosecutor, Ronnie Earle. In September, grand jurors indicted three of DeLay’s associates and eight corporations in an investigation of possibly illegal corporate contributions to a political action committee associated with DeLay, R-Texas.
“I did not instigate this,” DeLay told reporters after the meeting. “It was not leader-led. This came from the members themselves.”
DeLay said the impetus for the change was a desire to prevent a Democratic district attorney from deciding whether House Republican leaders could keep their jobs. He accused Earle of “trying to criminalize politics and using the criminal code to insert himself into politics.”
Earle’s office, asked to respond, had no immediate comment.
Fighting a ‘partisan crackpot district attorney’
The prime mover for the change was Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, who won with less than 52 percent of the vote two years ago and 69 percent this year after his district boundaries were changed in a DeLay-engineered Texas redistricting plan. He cited previous Texas cases he viewed as political, all of them investigated by Earle, the prosecutor in the current campaign finance probe. In one of those cases, charges against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, then a state official, were abruptly dropped 10 years ago.
“This takes the power away from any partisan crackpot district attorney who may want to indict” party leaders and make a name for himself, Bonilla said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., denounced the Republicans’ move.
“Republicans have reached a new low,” Pelosi said in a statement. “It is absolutely mind-boggling that as their first order of business following the elections, House Republicans have lowered the ethical standards for their leaders.”
Some Republican lawmakers also opposed the change.
“It sends all the wrong signals for us to change the current rules,” said Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee. He said he requested a recorded, secret ballot, but the suggestion was voted down.
A fellow Republican opponent, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, said 30 to 50 members voted against it. More than 200 Republicans were eligible to vote.
Shays told reporters that it violated the spirit of the Congressional Accountability Act, a Republican-inspired law that forces Congress to follow federal laws that applies to the private sector.
While the law does not cover relinquishing a position of responsibility in case of a felony indictment, Shays said, someone in an important, private leadership position would likely have to step aside in a similar circumstance.
Recalling that elimination of favoritism for lawmakers was an issue that helped Republicans capture control of the House a decade ago, Shays said, “There are too many new members who don’t remember how we got here.”
The Republican Party next year will have at least 231 members in the 435-member House, with three races undecided.
The modified rule the Republicans approved would give the 28-member House Republican Steering Committee 30 days to review the case of an indicted leader or committee chairman. A recommendation would be sent to a conference of all Republicans for a final decision.
The indicted member would keep his or her leadership role during the review. A member who is later convicted would automatically be removed from a leadership post or committee chairmanship.
House Democrats have a rule requiring committee leaders to step aside in case of a felony indictment, but it does not apply to top party leaders. Pelosi said the rule would be expanded to include the top leadership.