WASHINGTON -- Rep. Tom DeLay, under pressure from colleagues and swept into an election-year lobbying scandal, abandoned his effort yesterday to remain House majority leader. The move touched off a battle for the House Republican leadership in a campaign season tinged by corruption.
In letters sent yesterday to fellow House Republicans and Speaker Dennis Hastert, DeLay said he supported the call for an election of a new leader and was stepping aside to avoid becoming a political liability as Republicans battle to hold their majority.
"The job of majority leader and the mandate of the Republican majority are too important to be hamstrung, even for a few months, by personal distractions," DeLay said in the letter to Hastert, the man he picked to take the speaker's job after a round of leadership turmoil in 1998. In his letter to the Republican conference, DeLay said he had "always acted in an ethical manner within the rules of our body and the laws of our land."
Though his allies had suggested just hours earlier that DeLay would resist moves to oust him, his aides said he came to a different conclusion on his own yesterday morning in Texas as he assessed his waning support and the potential damage to House Republicans. He then telephoned Hastert to deliver his decision, according to a House leadership aide who did not want to be identified discussing private conversations.
Hastert said Republicans would hold a leadership election after they return for the State of the Union address Jan. 31. "It is an honorable decision and the right decision for the House Republican conference," he said of DeLay's announcement.
DeLay acted after a group of House Republicans began circulating a petition Friday calling for an election to bar him from the post. The move came after the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a former DeLay ally, pleaded guilty Tuesday to criminal corruption charges in a case that could also involve other former senior DeLay aides.
DeLay intends to seek re-election to his seat representing the Houston suburbs and reclaim his position on the Appropriations Committee, but he will no longer wield the power that for years made him one of the most influential Republicans in the capital.
His decision immediately kicked off a potentially divisive fight over who should become the new leader - a chief face of the party as well as the senior floor strategist.
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 elected Republican, who has been filling in for DeLay since his indictment September in Texas in a campaign case, quickly began rounding up support by telephone, arguing that his success in pushing through difficult budget and spending legislation in the past few months had proved his abilities and earned him the job permanently.
But Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, a well-liked lawmaker who served in the leadership in the past, was expected to announce his own candidacy as early as today.
Others could also throw in their names, including Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana, Mike Rogers of Michigan and Jerry Lewis of California. Lawmakers and top aides said there seemed to be no mounting challenge to either Hastert or Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, the chairwoman of the party conference.
A White House spokeswoman, Erin Healy, reading from an official statement, said, "We respect Congressman DeLay's decision to put the interests of the American people, the House of Representatives and the Republican Party first."
It was not clear whether Bush administration officials played a role in pushing DeLay out. Republicans who consulted with the White House and leadership on Capitol Hill said events had unfolded strictly within Congress.
DeLay stepped down from the post in the fall after his indictment in Texas on campaign-related charges of money laundering. He was aggressively battling those accusations, and many of his colleagues considered the case partisan. But the Abramoff plea and the potential involvement in that case of others who had been close to DeLay shifted the political dynamic.
House Republicans have stood by DeLay, who became majority leader in 2002 after serving for years as the party whip, despite a series of rebukes by the House ethics committee and a ferocious courtship of the lobbying industry that brought him under attack for having too heavy a hand in encouraging firms to hire favored Republican lobbyists.
Members of Maryland's House delegation greeted the news of DeLay's decision as a positive development.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore and is one of two Republicans in the delegation, said the absence of DeLay from the top ranks would be "good for the Republican Party" and possibly help it rebuild its image before the elections in November.
Gilchrest, a moderate who had expressed distaste for DeLay's tactics and partisan rhetoric, had been willing to support leadership elections even without a guarantee that DeLay wouldn't be a candidate.