DeLay case fuels partisan sniping

Democrats in House denounce majority leader as corrupt, not fit for job

October 08, 2004|By William Neikirk | William Neikirk,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has long been known as "the Hammer" for his hard-nosed partisanship and controversial fund-raising tactics.

The Texas Republican has provoked Democrats into such helpless anger that they once sued his office, claiming that it was a "criminal enterprise" because of his hard-hitting approach to fund raising.

But now DeLay has suffered a blow from the House's own Ethics Committee for allegedly misusing his powerful position, a development some said ultimately could trim his influence for the first time and endanger his chances to replace House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

The bipartisan panel admonished the majority leader Wednesday night for using the Federal Aviation Administration to track down Democrats in a Texas congressional redistricting fight and for appearing to give contributors special access on pending energy legislation.

No remorse

In the wake of the rebuke, the Hammer showed no remorse yesterday. And many Republicans who both fear and respect him shied away from criticizing him, while Democrats and watchdog groups called for his resignation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a news conference that "the burden falls on his fellow House Republicans. Republicans must answer: Do they want an ethically unfit person to be their majority leader, or do they want to remove the ethical cloud that hangs over the Capitol?"

Last week, the ethics panel also admonished DeLay for pressuring Michigan Republican Rep. Nick Smith to vote for a Medicare prescription drug bill. The committee said DeLay offered to endorse Smith's son in a congressional primary in exchange for his vote.

Despite this action, Hastert issued a statement calling DeLay a "good man," and several Republicans said the majority leader was in no danger of losing his position.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Democrats would turn DeLay's problem into a political issue, but added that he doubted it would affect his chances of becoming speaker. "You have to remember he hasn't violated any ethics laws," he said. "That's what it [the report] said."

`Slap on the wrist'

Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican, called the panel's action a "slap on the wrist and a few suggestions" for DeLay, and predicted the controversy would blow over soon. "We know he's a lightning rod because he's such an effective leader." He added he would have no problem supporting DeLay for speaker when the time comes.

But others weren't so sure. A staff member for a Midwestern Republican said the Ethics Committee's admonishment will have an effect on how DeLay is viewed by the party, but added the GOP is split on how large the effect will be.

John Fortier, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think thank, said that DeLay would likely only be harmed if Republicans do not fare well in upcoming congressional elections, especially in Texas, where DeLay played a key role in redistricting.

Even with all the ethics allegations, Fortier added, Delay is still "the most likely candidate" to replace Hastert.

DeLay's aggressive fund-raising actions and success in pushing legislation through the House despite a slim GOP majority has irked Democrats. Charles O. Jones, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, said DeLay represents a new kind of congressional leader who not only works to pass legislation but also raises funds and pushes hard to keep a majority.

Damage seen

Jones said the rules for this new kind of leadership "are not very well defined" and that a strong person like DeLay is "going to push it to the limit." Still, he said, the majority leader is likely to be hurt by the ethics committee's action in his quest to be speaker.

Michael Franc, a congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said, "I don't think it hurts him in any way ... I think in the long run this will play out positively for him." If anything, he said, the GOP would rally behind their leader.

Stephen Moore, head of the Club for Growth, a group that helps finance elections of conservative candidates, said the organization would sponsor a commercial in DeLay's Texas district next week.

"Tom DeLay is a hero of the conservative movement," he said. "I think he will weather the storm."

Sarah Frank of the Washington bureau contributed to this report. The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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