President Bush is doing for Tom DeLay what he refused to do for Trent Lott three years ago: taking a political risk to defend an embattled congressional leader's career, several Republican officials and strategists said.
With DeLay facing intense scrutiny of his travel, fundraising practices and relationship with controversial lobbyists, Bush yesterday offered the Texas Republican a timely show of support by inviting him to a public event and aboard Air Force One for a trip back to Washington from Texas. Scott McClellan, speaking to reporters before the flight, said the president supports DeLay "as strongly as he ever has."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) acknowledges supporters in Galveston.
(Jason Reed -- Reuters)
While the two men have never been close personally, Bush has told friends he needs DeLay's help enacting a second-term agenda and does not consider the allegations against the House majority leader serious enough to warrant the cold shoulder he delivered to Lott (R-Miss.), then Senate majority leader, in 2002. Lott was forced to step down after making racially insensitive comments, and the president refused to voice support for Lott, which many Republicans said contributed to the Senate leader's fall.
Bush is adopting a markedly different strategy in publicly defending DeLay amid recent allegations that the Texas Republican may have violated House ethics rules by taking a trip to London and Scotland partially charged to the credit cards of two lobbyists, several Republicans said. If the DeLay controversy explodes into a bigger scandal, some said, it could taint the White House, especially with Bush going out of his way to align himself with DeLay.
"He does not think DeLay has done anything wrong," said Charlie Black, a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the White House. "It's Bush's natural instinct to stand with him. There could be a risk, but it's the kind of risk [Bush] takes all the time."
Bush might also feel boxed in and left with little choice but to help DeLay, who has won the devotion of social conservatives, several Republicans said.
Bush has no connection to the issues surrounding DeLay's controversies, but one of the lobbyists whose credit card was charged for part of DeLay's trip was a major fundraiser for the president's reelection. Jack Abramoff raised more than $100,000 for Bush in 2004 and had close ties to his Interior Department. In addition, investigators are looking into a $4 million payment that Abramoff made to lobbyist Ralph Reed, a key player in the president's reelection operation who raised more than $300,000 for Bush's two presidential campaigns. Two people close to Bush said the entire party will suffer if the controversy spreads and become a major issue with the public.
The president has carefully avoided defending DeLay on specific charges and instead focused largely on his leadership skills, his character and his ability to pass Republican legislation in the House. "I appreciate the leadership of Congressman Tom DeLay in working on important issues that matter to the country," Bush said at the top of a Social Security speech yesterday in Galveston, Tex. DeLay, who represents a nearby congressional district, was invited to the speech by the White House. Karl Rove, one of the president's top aides, was quoted in yesterday's USA Today saying DeLay's troubles would be quickly cleared if the House ethics committee looked into them.
After the flight, DeLay said he was "very humbled" by the president's support.
To some Republicans, the supportive words of Bush and Rove illustrate how the White House has had a change of heart about the often bombastic DeLay over the past five years. When Bush took office, the president, and in particular Rove, were not especially fond of DeLay, whom they considered uncontrollable and a potential roadblock on issues such as new accountability standards for students. Bush aides still bristle at DeLay's comment during the 2000 campaign that Bush "does not know how Congress works."
While several Republicans said DeLay and Rove have a frosty relationship rooted in old Texas political disputes, Bush and most of his top aides, including Rove, consider the majority leader indispensable in passing legislation. The turning point, they said, was when DeLay helped Bush pass a new prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients in late 2003.
"DeLay is not just a conservative," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "He is really effective. And the Bush people who had some disdain for DeLay in the beginning have come to see that."
DeLay is among the most popular politicians with social conservatives, especially after he led the fight to try to save Terri Schiavo's life. The "conservative movement is watching to see what Bush will do or say," said a Republican with ties to the White House. Many social conservatives, he said, would lash out at Bush if the president's response was tepid or nonexistent.
The president needs DeLay on Social Security, the budget and other issues. If the White House did not work to defend him, Bush would risk a backlash not just from conservatives but from DeLay, who, if he survived, might not be as aggressive in helping pass Bush's agenda.
For DeLay, the president's backing buys him time, at the very least. So far, one House Republican has called on DeLay to resign as party leader, and another has said he should step aside until the controversy is settled. A much larger number of House Republicans are watching nervously, and Bush's gestures should pacify them for now, Republicans said. The biggest fear among some DeLay backers was that Bush would give him the Lott treatment.
While the two leaders face dramatically different charges, many Republicans believe Bush could have saved Lott's job if he had offered public words of support for the Mississippi Republican.
"No question, there was a hands-off policy at the White House that led to Lott's demise," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "Any effort on the president's part would have helped Lott."