Besieged DeLay still a potent D.C. force

Power base stays firm amid ethics complaints

April 26, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For two decades, Rep. Tom DeLay has worked to build an empire on conservative ideals, bare-knuckle politics and an enormous talent for fund raising.

Now, as controversy swirls around him, all those things are helping him keep his party together - and keep his job.

Always a polarizing figure inside the Beltway, DeLay - the House Republican majority leader - is under fire for his fund-raising practices, his ties to lobbyists and his alleged ethical lapses in accepting foreign trips. Yet despite a steady stream of new disclosures and loud complaints from Democrats, nearly all of the other 231 Republicans in the House are supporting him, at least publicly.

The former exterminator from suburban Houston is a figure of remarkable power in the House. He attracts loyalty through solidarity with his conservative colleagues, a flood of campaign cash, and support from Washington's vast lobbying corps, much of which has been remade in his image.

Marshall Wittman, a former aide to Sen. John McCain who also worked for iconic conservative organizations such as the Christian Coalition and the Heritage Foundation, said most Republican lawmakers have built a relationship either with the ideologues on the right or with big campaign donors looking to curry favor. DeLay has managed to cultivate both.

"He has a unique network of both ideological groups and the business community. He's been able to forge an alliance between those two sectors, which is unique in establishing a broad power base," said Wittman, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "It's like a triangle of power that he's constructed. Even [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich didn't have that."

That base has helped DeLay and other Republican leaders marshal the rank and file in the House.

For many, the allegiance they have to DeLay is based on shared principles and the way he takes care of members: offering food for late-night votes, a car from the airport when they are running late and political cover when they're in trouble at home.

For others, it is the classic fear of speaking against a leader who, while wounded, might survive to punish them - even just by withholding money from DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority, or ARMPAC, which doled out nearly $1 million to Republicans running for the House and Senate in 2003 and 2004. ARMPAC handed out an additional $114,000, mostly to congressional candidates, in March alone.

Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett is one Republican who feels an ideological kinship with the party leader. Bartlett, who represents Western Maryland, has received money from ARMPAC - $10,000 in the last election cycle - but said his loyalty to DeLay is about their shared goals.

"I have a real affinity for Tom DeLay," Bartlett said. "I will tell you that it is very clear to me that this is a feeding frenzy, that the media and Democrats are piling on."

Bartlett said he suspects any member of Congress could be vulnerable to ethics charges, if their records were scrutinized as intensely as DeLay's have been.

"He works very hard," Bartlett said. "At times, when you have that kind of temperament, you may fly a little too close to the flame. That may have happened a couple of times."

DeLay has stopped speaking to the media about the allegations. Last week, four of the five Republicans on the House ethics committee offered to investigate DeLay if Democrats on the committee agreed to accept new rules. Democrats, as they have all year, rejected the deal, arguing the rules fatally weaken the committee's policing powers. Nonetheless, some saw the mere offer of a probe as a sign that House Republicans are nervous.

DeLay's old-fashioned political style - which included intervening in the bruising fight over redistricting in Texas last year - has earned him the nickname "the Hammer." A prosecutor in Austin, where an investigation into DeLay's fund raising in Texas is under way, has indicted three former associates there.

But it is his relationships with lobbyists that have drawn scrutiny recently.

DeLay has been unusually successful in placing former aides at the big Washington lobbying firms, and in pressing them to hire Republicans through what he called the "K Street Project."

"He was able to impart a certain fear within that community by simply saying, `If you want access to the Republican Party, you're going to have to prove your loyalty, both with campaign contributions and your hiring processes,"' Wittman said.

In the past several weeks, media reports about DeLay's trips to Europe, Korea and Malaysia have raised questions about whether the travel was paid for by foundations and other interest groups, or directly by lobbyists, which would be a violation of House rules.

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