DeLay's decision fuels GOP concerns

Imminent exit also leaves Bush without enforcer in House


WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his congressional allies expressed hope yesterday that their party could recover from the web of scandals that ensnared Tom DeLay, the powerful and hard-charging former House Republican leader who has announced that he will quit Congress within weeks.

But DeLay's decision to resign underscored broader concerns among some Republican strategists that the still-unfolding corruption charges could cost other vulnerable lawmakers their seats this year. And Democrats promised a push to make Republican scandals a signature theme of the elections.

The imminent departure of DeLay - the 11-term congressman who is known as "The Hammer" for his uncompromising style and is particularly popular with the president's conservative base - also leaves Bush without a go-to enforcer on Capitol Hill at a time when his influence is waning and his relations with Republican lawmakers are frayed.

Bush said yesterday that DeLay's move "had to have been a very difficult decision for someone who loved representing his district," and the president sounded a note of optimism that Republicans could move beyond the scandals.

"My own judgment is, is that our party will continue to succeed, because we're the party of ideas," Bush said.

DeLay, in interviews and a videotaped statement to his constituents, said he cut short the bid for re-election to his Houston-area seat out of concern that he might not win the race. With a characteristically defiant flourish, he said he also hoped to deprive Democrats of a chance "to steal this seat with a negative personal campaign" and turn the contest into "a referendum on me." He pointed to polls that showed him tied with his Democratic challenger.

"I have no fear whatsoever about any investigation into me or my personal or professional activities," DeLay said.

But his announcement came within days after a former top aide, Tony C. Rudy, pleaded guilty to charges that he conspired with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to corrupt public officials. Abramoff, once a close DeLay associate, was sentenced last month to nearly six years in prison in an unrelated Florida fraud case.

DeLay, who is facing campaign finance fraud charges in Texas, stepped down from his leadership post last fall. Three days after Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to charges of bilking Indian tribes out of millions of dollars and conspiring to bribe public officials, DeLay announced that he would not seek to reclaim the leadership post.

Insiders said DeLay decided to leave Congress after determining that the unraveling lobbying and influence scandal could doom his candidacy. One said Rudy's plea "crystallized" the decision to quit the race. Polls showed that DeLay's re-election chances were being weighed down by questions about his character and credibility, all attributable to his legal problems. DeLay and his top aides recognized that they could do virtually nothing to combat those kinds of concerns, people close to him said.

"The last 18 months have been politically debilitating" for DeLay, said former Republican Rep. Bill Paxon of New York.

But Republicans also recognize that their problems could go far beyond DeLay. Most expect new corruption revelations in the coming weeks, with investigations continuing into conduct by Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who surrendered a committee chairmanship this year under suspicion that he took bribes from Abramoff, and other former top House leadership aides.

"I don't think we've seen the last shoe drop here," one senior House Republican aide said. "There's going to be an ongoing trickle."

DeLay's imminent exit leaves Bush without an influential figure in the House. Despite his legal problems, DeLay still enjoyed considerable power, especially among conservatives who comprise the chamber's center of gravity.

Now the White House, consumed with its own personnel shake-up and facing complaints from restive Republicans that Bush has mishandled key issues and failed to communicate with them, has substantial work ahead to repair relations on Capitol Hill.

DeLay "was obviously the go-to guy when the going got tough, and they'll have to find the next go-to person. There's no time to wait," said Stuart Roy, DeLay's former communications director.

"Is it a void that can never be filled? No - the White House has other channels - but this is one foot soldier they'll miss," said Greg Crist, a former top Republican leadership aide.

The White House played down the effect of DeLay's departure on Bush's agenda. Asked whether the president regretted DeLay's plans, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, "The decision has been made, and now it's time to move forward and continue working with congressional leaders to build upon our record."

In their public comments yesterday, House Republican leaders praised DeLay's tenure and expressed sorrow at his impending departure.

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