Recent series of political scandals could hurt GOP

Plame investigation, SEC's probe of Frist among incidents that could reflect poorly on party, costing Republicans votes on Election Day



WASHINGTON -- With Republican fortunes in Washington already in decline, the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas could hardly come at a worse time for his party.

DeLay, often described as the most powerful man on Capitol Hill, had been a leading player in efforts to hold House Republicans together amid fierce internal battles over the high cost of hurricane relief.

Behind the strains in party unity, though, lies a much bigger Republican fear: losing control of one or both houses of Congress in next year's election.

"It is beginning to look like the drip, drip, drip of political scandal is taking its toll on the Republican Party. ... And, yes, congressional Republicans should be worried about 2006," said William F. Connelly Jr., a Washington and Lee University political scientist with ties to Republicans in Washington. "There is a real potential downside for the Republican Party, because there's an accumulation of incidents at this point."

DeLay's indictment, which forced him to relinquish his leadership position, means that top Republicans in both houses of Congress have fallen under an ethical cloud within the past week. Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission over recent stock transactions in his family's hospital corporation.

At the same time, a special prosecutor is nearing completion of a leak investigation involving CIA operative Valerie Plame that threatens to ensnare high-level Bush administration officials. A series of probes into the activities of a well-connected Republican lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, has already produced unfavorable publicity for several prominent Republicans, including DeLay and Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio. Veteran House Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, under federal investigation over alleged financial favors for a defense contractor, has announced that he won't seek re-election.

DeLay's removal from his leadership post, as required by a House Republican rule that he had tried in vain to eliminate, was only temporary, the pugnacious Texan insisted yesterday. But the recent history of House leaders facing ethics charges - including House Speakers Newt Gingrich and Jim Wright, House Speaker-to-be Robert L. Livingston and House Democratic Whip Tony Coelho - suggests that DeLay is unlikely to return to power.

An early decision for the Texas Republican will be whether to seek another two-year term from his suburban Houston district. In 2004, after being admonished by the House Ethics committee for what Democrats called abuses of power, DeLay ran significantly behind President Bush and won re-election with the smallest vote percentage of his career.

Even if he runs next year and is ultimately exonerated in the courts, DeLay faces the very real prospect that House Republicans "will have moved on without him," said Gary Jacobson, a University of California, San Diego political scientist.

News of DeLay's indictment left his Republican colleagues "depressed," said lobbyist Robert S. Walker, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. "You don't take a cog as important as Tom DeLay out of the wheel without having an impact."

DeLay's fall is an unwanted distraction for Republicans in Washington, who are already struggling to remain unified in the face of growing public dissatisfaction with their performance on most major issues, polls show. DeLay noted yesterday that Congress has "very hard work ahead" - not least of which is dealing with the staggering price tag for hurricane relief, perhaps as high as $200 billion.

But if House and Senate Republicans become consumed by election-year worries this fall, analysts said, it could make it more difficult to advance their - and President Bush's - conservative agenda.

"Republicans are now going to have to run a little more scared in 2006, and that distracts from their ability to focus the country on certain legislative innovations they might be interested in pushing," said Connelly, citing the overhaul of Social Security as one potential casualty.

Whether Republicans suffer serious long-term damage may depend largely on the ability of Democrats to capitalize on the latest blow to the party in command on Capitol Hill. So far, Democrats have shown little, if any, ability to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Bush's summer-long erosion in popularity and rising anger at high gas prices.

Recent opinion surveys indicate that the public is souring on the Republican-led Congress, with Democrats generally favored if the next election were being held now. But other polling data suggests that Democrats still have a long way to go if they expect to generate the election-day surge needed to take control of the House or Senate.

A new national opinion survey, released this week by Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg, found that feelings toward the Democratic Party among independent swing voters have fallen to a 2 1/2 -year low.

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