WASHINGTON -- A Texas judge refused yesterday to throw out money-laundering charges against Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, potentially derailing his efforts to regain his position as House majority leader.
The judge dismissed one charge against the Republican, conspiracy to violate Texas election law.
Hours later, Vice President Dick Cheney, in a show of support for DeLay by the White House, headlined a campaign fundraiser for him in Houston.
DeLay was forced by House GOP rules to resign his leadership job - the chamber's second-ranking position - when he was indicted this fall. A dismissal of all the charges against DeLay would have allowed him to try to regain the post, which is being temporarily filled by Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican.
Lacking a dismissal, DeLay's lawyers have sought a trial as early as January, hoping that he would be found not guilty and then could attempt to reclaim his leadership job. But the trial might not start for several months.
Some House Republicans are pressing their leaders not to wait for a resolution of DeLay's legal problems before permanently selecting his replacement.
"Members want a permanent structure at the beginning of the year to manage the House," said an aide to the House Republican leadership, who requested anonymity when discussing the internal party debate.
DeLay has said the case against him, alleging that he helped funnel illegal contributions to House candidates from Texas in 2002, was politically motivated to diminish his power. The Democratic district attorney pressing the case against DeLay has denied that charge.
The ruling yesterday drew new attention to the difficulties facing congressional Republicans as the 2006 election year arrives.
In addition to the legal cloud over DeLay, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, announced his resignation from the House last week after pleading guilty to accepting bribes. And a former DeLay aide, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to bribe officials in Washington as a lobbyist.
Scanlon worked with another lobbyist close to GOP congressional leaders, Jack Abramoff, who is under investigation. The case has sparked concerns among Republicans on Capitol Hill that their connections to the lobbyists could cause them political and legal problems.
Also, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible financial wrongdoing.
A spokesman for DeLay, Kevin Madden, said the decision yesterday in Austin, Texas, by Judge Pat Priest to dismiss the one conspiracy charge "underscores just how baseless and politically motivated the charges were. "
He said DeLay was "very encouraged by the swift progress of the legal proceedings and looks forward to his eventual and absolute exoneration based on the facts and the law."
But Cris Feldman, an Austin attorney who represented Texas Democrats in a civil suit involving allegations of campaign irregularities in the 2002 House races, said, "DeLay still has to go to trial on a first-degree felony, and I don't think anyone would call that a victory."
If found guilty of the money-laundering charge against him, DeLay could be sentenced to five years to life in prison. He also still faces a charge of conspiracy to commit money-laundering, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
In dispatching Cheney to his side, the White House has signaled that it is standing by DeLay.
"When the decision is made to put the vice president into a congressional district to headline a fundraiser, that is a big commitment and it shows an endorsement, explicit or not," the House Republican aide said.
Still, a Republican familiar with White House thinking said the Cheney visit was not intended to send a signal to House Republicans "one way or the other" about whether they should stick with DeLay.
The Republican requested anonymity when discussing White House matters.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll has found that DeLay's political standing has weakened considerably in his home district around Houston.
The survey found that 49 percent of registered voters questioned said they are more likely to vote for a Democratic challenger than for DeLay in 2006, and 36 percent aid they would be more likey to vote for DeLay.
Former Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson is planning to challenge DeLay in the 2006 elections.
The survey also found that 55 percent of registered voters said the charges that DeLay broke campaign finance laws are definitely or probably true, and that 34 percent said they were probably or definitely not true.
James Gerstenzang and Ronald Brownstein write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.