House Democratic leaders and several outside groups called for Majority Leader Tom DeLay to resign his post yesterday, saying that three admonishments by the House ethics committee in one week disqualify him for the chamber's second-highest leadership job. Fellow Republicans staunchly defended the Texas lawmaker, even as some said the consecutive rebukes may complicate his prospects of ever becoming speaker.
"Mr. DeLay has proven himself to be ethically unfit to lead his party," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. "The burden now falls upon his fellow House Republicans" to oust him.
Facing perhaps the biggest challenge of his combative career, DeLay began summoning colleagues within minutes of the Wednesday night release of the committee's latest report, distributing talking points that GOP members recited throughout the day yesterday. He fought back furiously on other fronts, saying vengeful Democrats wanted to smear him and calling on the House Rules Committee to condemn the lawmaker who filed the latest complaint.
While Democrats railed, Republicans rallied, hailing the man that many credit for boosting the GOP's grip on the House through aggressive campaign and redistricting strategies that often draw fire. "People are grateful for what he's done to build the majority," said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), including the Texas redistricting fight at the center of some of the ethics complaints.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called the charges against DeLay "gutter politics at its worst" and said: "You're going to see a big rallying around Tom. It will do nothing but bolster support for Tom DeLay."
Still, some Republicans said the ethics rebukes could haunt DeLay if he tries to become speaker. Some lawmakers expect Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to retire in 2006 or perhaps step down from the speakership next year if President Bush, his ally and friend, should lose the Nov. 2 election.
As the second-ranking leader, DeLay would automatically be considered a potential successor. But Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) said the Texan "will have a tough battle for speaker" because of his unyielding conservatism and the attacks on his ethics record. Souder, who calls himself a DeLay ally, said the majority leader may be able to prevail because so many House Republicans feel loyal to him.
DeLay can afford little erosion in support, one lawmaker noted, because the entire House votes for a speaker. Were an election held today, as few as a dozen GOP rebels could deny DeLay the speakership by siding with Democrats, who are virtually certain to vote unanimously against their adversary.
Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) said a colleague asked him yesterday whether he would be interested in seeking a leadership post, a question that inevitably raises the matter of DeLay's viability. "The question is: Is the aggregate weight of the [ethics] charges too much?" Wamp said in reference to DeLay. "I'm definitely interested in getting more involved in leadership and setting the direction of the party."
DeLay's claim yesterday that the ethics committee had "dismissed" the charges against him bore little resemblance to key portions of the ethics panel's 44-page memo, seven-page letter and thick stack of documents, Democrats noted. The committee's five Republicans and five Democrats voted unanimously to admonish the majority leader on two separate matters this week, sometimes in scolding tones. It deferred action on a third matter under grand jury investigation in Texas.
The committee noted that it also had chastised DeLay last week and in 1999. "It is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions," the panel wrote DeLay, to comply with "House rules and standards of conduct."
House Democrats seized on such language to attack the politician they view as their most bitter foe in terms of fundraising, congressional redistricting and hardball parliamentary tactics. Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said DeLay's "defiant and deliberately misleading statements . . . show nothing but contempt for the ethics process," and he should lose his leadership post. Common Cause began a "nationwide petition drive to collect thousands of signatures" calling for his ouster.
Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the House ethics committee chairman, said that Democrats were accusing his colleagues and him of being too soft on DeLay, and that Republicans were saying the panel was duped into being too severe. He said of the committee: "It's a unanimous vote, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. . . . I think that speaks for itself."
The ethics committee on Wednesday faulted DeLay's actions in involving a federal agency in a Texas partisan dispute. It also admonished him for his dealings with officers of a Kansas energy company who gave his political committees $25,000 and claimed they received legislative help in return. Last week, the ethics panel publicly admonished DeLay for offering to endorse the political campaign of a Michigan lawmaker's son if the legislator would give a crucially needed vote on the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill. And in 1999, the committee privately chastised him for threatening to retaliate against a Washington trade group for hiring a Democrat as its president.
"This is a case of a recidivist, and it needs to be treated as one," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Democracy 21, which urged Republicans to remove DeLay from his post.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to capitalize on the ethics reports yesterday. It criticized Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) -- a moderate Republican in a district Democrats believe they can win -- for defending DeLay as "a great majority leader."
"Only a rubber stamp for DeLay and his right-wing Republican agenda would call him a great leader on the same day he's sanctioned for the third time by the House ethics committee," said DCCC Chairman Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.).
But Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), finance chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Democrats are wasting their time. "When we're campaigning, we're not talking about Tom DeLay, we're talking about what we've accomplished for the American people," he said.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said DeLay's name came up at a recent candidates' debate "and people said, 'Who is he?' "