Shadowed by scandal, House Republicans face an uncertain new era after upheaval that left Majority Leader Tom DeLay under indictment and forced to surrender his powerful post.
House and Senate Republican leadership were due at the White House Thursday afternoon to plot legislative strategy with President Bush.
“What we do here is more important than who we are,” Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt said Wednesday after the rank and file named him as DeLay’s replacement, at least for the time being. “We have an agenda to move forward here.”
Democrats, 11 long years in the minority, said the GOP offered nothing of the sort.
DeLay’s indictment marks “the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader.
A Texas judge on Thursday set DeLay's court date for Oct. 21 in Austin.
Even as DeLay professed his innocence and his lawyers said they hoped to avoid having him handcuffed, fingerprinted and photographed, potential for fresh controversy surfaced.
Payments to alleged co-conspirator
Records on file with the Federal Election Commission show that Blunt’s political action committee has paid roughly $88,000 in fees since 2003 to a consultant facing indictment in Texas in the same case as DeLay.
Keri Ann Hayes, executive director of the Rely on Your Beliefs Fund, said officials of the organization have not discussed whether to end the relationship with the consultant, Jim Ellis, in light of his indictment.
“We haven’t had that conversation,” she said, adding that so far, Ellis’ indictment had no impact on his work.
DeLay’s indictment produced a public show of unity among Republicans and a scarcely concealed outbreak of power politics, at a time when polls show dwindling support for President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress. Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist R-Tenn., faces federal investigations into the sale of stock.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Blunt and other senior GOP lawmakers said they expected DeLay to be exonerated. “This temporary arrangement will allow us to continue our work until (he) can resume his duties as majority leader,” said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the deputy whip who will assume many of Blunt’s old duties in the leadership shuffle.
Other expressions of support were more tempered.
RNC does not assert DeLay's innocence
“It is our sincere hope that justice will remain blind to politics. As Tom DeLay clearly stated today, House Republicans will continue to focus on the business of the American people,” party chairman Ken Mehlman said in a statement that did not assert the Texan’s innocence.
Some Republican lawmakers, who refused to be identified by name as a condition for disclosing their personal opinions, said they doubted DeLay would ever return to the leadership table. Others spoke of the possibility for political damage.
“Any time you have anything that smacks of scandal, it hurts all of us,” said Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado, who served as chairman of the House ethics committee at a time when the panel three times admonished DeLay for his actions.
Rep. Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., said he will return $15,000 in campaign funds from DeLay’s political action committee to remove any question about the nature of the contribution, according to Thursday’s New Hampshire Union Leader.
Several officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an aide to Hastert contacted California Rep. David Dreier on Monday about assuming the majority leader’s duties in the event DeLay was indicted. Several lawmakers said such a change would have made it easier for the Texan to eventually regain his post.
But by Tuesday, as the grand jury completed its work in Austin, Texas, Blunt forcefully asserted his claim to the job in conversations with the speaker, according to several GOP officials.
Resistance to Dreier leads to Blunt
At the same time, conservative lawmakers quickly made known their unhappiness with Dreier as a potential stand-in for DeLay.
At a private midday meeting, several conservative lawmakers argued that Dreier’s voting record was too moderate. According to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, some participants in the meeting said the Californian had voted in favor of expanded federal funding for stem cell research and against a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. There also was grumbling that the Californian favored a less restrictive policy on immigration than many conservatives.
“There was a lot of discussion in that room about will ... he advance the conservative agenda?” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who attended the meeting and said he personally would have been comfortable with Dreier in the post.
Other officials said a show of hands near the end of the session showed support for a postponement in selecting a temporary majority leader if it were to be Dreier. A delegation was dispatched to inform Hastert, who in the meantime had decided to recommend Blunt instead.
The speaker presented his recommendation not long afterward at a closed-door meeting of the rank and file, saying it was designed as a stopgap solution.
But even then some lawmakers expressed concern about inadvertently making an open-ended commitment, and Hastert pledged that the issue could be reopened in three months’ time.
Little time to clear his name
That leaves DeLay little time to clear his name and reclaim his post before a potential round of elections in which Blunt, Cantor or others face challenges, with the winners emerging with clear mandates of their own.
DeLay flashed defiance during the day as he embarked on a round of post-indictment media interviews. Summoning reporters to his office in the Capitol — the one he would soon vacate — he denounced Texas prosecutor Ronald Earle as “an unabashed partisan zealot.
“I am innocent. Mr. Earle and his staff know it. And I will prove it,” he added.
“Our job is to prosecute abuses of power and to bring those abuses to the public,” Earle responded in Texas. Rebutting charges of partisanship, he said he has investigated four times as many Democrats as Republicans.
DeLay, 58, was indicted on a single felony count of conspiring with two political associates — Ellis and John Colyandro — to violate state election law by using corporate donations illegally. Texas law prohibits use of corporate contributions to advocate the election or defeat of candidates.
DeLay is the highest-ranking member of Congress ever to be indicted, according to Don Ritchie, a Senate historian.