WASHINGTON -- Rep. Tom DeLay's decision to stop battling for his former House leadership job helps remove a huge distraction from Republican efforts to recover from a stormy 2005 that put President Bush and the party on the defensive.
But DeLay's announcement to throw in the towel might create as many problems as it solves.
It has set off a divisive power struggle to succeed him as the House's permanent majority leader - and could spark the overthrow of other leaders.
Also, whoever is chosen to replace DeLay will be thrust into a job that, now more than ever, requires the kind of iron-fisted leadership that was the Texas Republican's trademark.
Bush's second-term priorities, overhauling Social Security and rewriting the tax code, have faltered, and Republicans are struggling to refocus on an agenda of cutting taxes, reducing federal spending and cracking down on illegal immigration. But the fate of these measures is cloudy.
House Republicans had shown signs of splintering late last year, after DeLay was forced to give up his leadership post temporarily because of his indictment in Texas on money-laundering charges.
"While Tom DeLay was a public relations nightmare, he also was a strong leader, a talented vote counter, arm-twister and strategist," said Charlie Cook, a Washington-based nonpartisan political analyst who publishes the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
DeLay clearly was missed, but he had also become damaged goods. And after lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had close ties to DeLay, pleaded guilty last week to corruption charges and sent many Republicans running for political cover, it became clear that DeLay would have to go if the GOP had any hope of changing the subject in this year's congressional campaigns.
"You don't want that kind of distraction moving forward in 2006," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. Now, every Republican House member, he said, "doesn't have to go around answering the question, `Do you think Tom DeLay should resign?'"
Instead, Republicans face another political question: How much more must they do, in making leadership changes and embracing legislative initiatives such as tighter rules for lobbyists, to distance their party from the taint of scandal in the post-Abramoff world?
Some Republicans believe an aggressive anti-corruption agenda is necessary. They contend that although DeLay might no longer loom as leadership figure, his imprint will remain on the way the party raises money and conducts legislative strategy.
Some of the House's junior Republican members are saying that if the GOP wants to burnish its image with the public, perhaps fresh faces should be brought into the leadership ranks. Although House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, a Republican of Illinois, appeared secure in his post, other leaders might be challenged.
Rep. Thaddeus G. McCotter, a Michigan Republican, called yesterday for a "potential housecleaning" and full disclosure of GOP leaders' relationships with lobbyists.
Still, the Republicans initially being mentioned as the prime contenders for majority leader have been close to DeLay and are skilled players in the fundraising machine he established.
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the majority whip, who is serving as temporary majority leader, is a DeLay protege who received $8,500 in campaign contributions linked to Abramoff. Last week, he announced he would give that amount to charity.
Another likely candidate for majority leader, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, also had financial links to Abramoff.
According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, he received $32,500 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and the lobbyist's clients - more than DeLay did.
Some Republicans believe that Bush himself might have to step into the breach and play a more aggressive role in advancing his legislative agenda.
Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times