To build support for impeachment, DeLay puts aside hammer GOP whip approaches case as moral issue

December 16, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER DAVID L. GREENE CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- The man behind the impeachment of President Clinton is not one of the television-ready Republican stars in the Monica Lewinsky saga, but rather a pugnacious former pest exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, known on Capitol Hill as "The Hammer."

Rep. Tom DeLay, the third-ranking House Republican leader, more than any other member has slammed the door on any House vote on a censure resolution and left lawmakers with no choice but to impeach Clinton or let him off the hook.

A born-again Christian who says he considers Clinton's abuses an outrage, DeLay pushed for impeachment even after the midterm elections suggested that the issue was dead.

And he insisted on it even when party moderates told him to pipe down.

The hard-knuckled DeLay -- who as majority whip lobbies behind the scenes to unify the Republican ranks on important votes -- has not made his case the usual way this time.

Many rank-and-file Republicans say he has not been "hammer"-like -- at least not that they could see -- and is not confronting wavering members with threats of lost committee assignments or campaign donations.

Instead, DeLay has cast impeachment in moral terms.

Now, straying Republicans are walking in step with DeLay.

Coming home in droves

"Our moderate Republicans are coming home in droves," Rep. John T. Doolittle of California said yesterday as several more House Republicans announced their support for impeachment.

"Tom DeLay was the champion leading the way. I give him the credit."

What drives this 51-year-old conservative?

The answers are as divided as this Congress. His friends call him a God-fearing man driven by the desire to uphold high ethical standards.

His foes call him a partisan enforcer out to destroy the president for personal gain.

"There are people who believe Bill Clinton is the embodiment of all bad things -- Tom DeLay is one of them," argues Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat.

"He sees this as the chance to be the leader of the right wing and strengthen the right wing's control of the party."

Speaking from the heart

But DeLay's supporters say his fight for impeachment -- which public opinion polls show is widely unpopular -- is not a politically calculated move.

"He's speaking from the heart," said John Feehery, a former DeLay aide. "This falls out of the realm of basic politics for him."

DeLay describes his impeachment efforts as his duty.

"If we just forgave [Clinton's behavior] and pushed it aside, we would be violating our oath of office," he said in a television interview last weekend.

Even so, DeLay's long-standing frustration with the president is clear.

Clinton "has either lied or broken his word to me the four years that we have been a majority," he said in the interview.

Later, he argued, Clinton should "put the American people ahead of his own ambitions and resign."

A former owner of Albo Pest Control in Sugar Land, DeLay is plenty controversial. Critics cite the time he asserted that the insecticide DDT was not harmful and likened the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo.

He also once suggested that political donations from people with Asian-sounding names should be studied for possible campaign finance violations.

DeLay's new prominence comes partly after last month's leadership shake-up: Since Speaker Newt Gingrich announced his intention to resign and incoming Speaker Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana has maintained a low profile, DeLay has filled the void and emerged as the Republican voice on Capitol Hill.

DeLay has show a knack for surviving potentially career-ending miscalculations.

Instant confession

In last year's failed attempt to remove Gingrich from the speaker's chair, DeLay instantly confessed his role in the plot but emerged with his powers intact.

He was the only top House Republican not challenged in this year's leadership shake-up.

zTC DeLay, a Texas state legislator who entered the House in 1984, is highly regarded for his vote-counting skills. Adding to his clout: He gives generously to the party faithful.

In 1997-1998, DeLay's political action committee gave $259,000 to Republican causes and candidates, and DeLay gave nearly $183,000 more from his own campaign funds, according to Federal Election Commission records.

When DeLay started in the Texas legislature, a former colleague remembers him hanging out with Republican and Democratic lobbyists and listening to late-night guitar sessions in bars or at someone's house.

But there is little commingling with Democrats now. Since coming to Congress, many colleagues say, DeLay has grown more conservative and moved closer to the religious right.

DeLay's pet peeves include Democratic lobbyists in a Republican-led House.

Partisan punishment

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