House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has dismissed questions about his ethics as partisan attacks, but revelations last week about his overseas travel and ties to lobbyists under investigation have emboldened Democrats and provoked worry among Republicans.
With some members increasingly concerned that DeLay had left himself vulnerable to attack, several Republican aides and lobbyists said for the first time that they are worried about whether he will survive and what the consequences could be for the party's image.
Despite questions about his ethics, Tom DeLay receives a warm welcome in Sugar Land, Tex., where he once ran a pest-control business. At least six Republicans have recently said they are worried about the allegations.
(Larry Pullen For The Washington Post)
_____Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.)_____
Gambling Interests Funded DeLay Trip (The Washington Post, Mar 12, 2005)
DeLay Treated for Irregular Heartbeat (The Washington Post, Mar 11, 2005)
House Ethics Panel in Gridlock (The Washington Post, Mar 11, 2005)
S. Korean Group Sponsored DeLay Trip (The Washington Post, Mar 10, 2005)
Prosecutor Balks When Asked If DeLay Is Target of Tex. Probe (The Washington Post, Mar 6, 2005)
DeLay Moves To Protect His Political Base Back in Texas (The Washington Post, Mar 3, 2005)
Texas Trial Begins Against Treasurer of DeLay Group (The Washington Post, Mar 1, 2005)
"If death comes from a thousand cuts, Tom DeLay is into a couple hundred, and it's getting up there," said a Republican political consultant close to key lawmakers. "The situation is negatively fluid right now for the guy. You start hitting arteries, it only takes a couple." The consultant, who at times has been a DeLay ally, spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he could not be candid otherwise.
At least six Republicans expressed concern over the weekend about DeLay's situation. They said they do not think DeLay necessarily deserves the unwanted attention he is receiving. But they said that the volume of the revelations about his operation is becoming alarming and that they do not see how it will abate.
Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said that DeLay remains generally strong within his party and is an effective leader and operator, but that "signs are emerging that both the number and nature of charges being raised against him could put him in serious political peril."
"While he is far from a nationally recognized figure, Republicans worry that all it takes is more national news coverage to change that, and there seems to be a new episode every week or two," Mann said. "We've seen throughout congressional history that a series of seemingly small ethical missteps can snowball."
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said DeLay "has always had, and continues to have, the strong support" of the party. "His leadership and dedication to maintaining and growing our numbers are a significant reason for our Republican majority," he added.
Republican leaders had thought they had built a fortress against future trouble by changing House rules in January and by changing the House ethics committee's Republican membership in February to include members closer to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and DeLay. In one previously unreported example of the tight connections, Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), one of the committee's new members, was co-host of a 2002 fundraising breakfast to benefit the DeLay-founded political action committee that is now the subject of a grand jury investigation in Texas. The grand jury is looking into whether the PAC improperly used corporate funds to influence the outcome of state legislative races.
DeLay's legal defense fund received contributions from two of the new ethics committee members, Smith and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). The committee admonished DeLay three times last year. Republican leaders later sought the rule changes that made it more difficult to bring new ethics charges against Republicans.
Democratic leaders have introduced a resolution to repeal the rules and said they plan to try to force Republicans to publicly defend the changes at a time when the news media are reporting about DeLay's relationship with lobbyists now under criminal and congressional investigation.
The rule changes require at least one member of each party to support an investigation before it is begun. Under the old rules, if the chairman and top Democrat did not agree on what to do with a complaint within 45 days after it was determined to be valid, an investigative subcommittee was automatically created. Now, a complaint is automatically dismissed if the committee does not act within 45 days.
Democrats opened their protest Thursday, at the ethics committee's first meeting under its new leadership, by preventing the panel from organizing. The committee must adopt rules to function, and those were voted down by a 5 to 5 party-line vote, leaving the House with no mechanism for investigating or punishing members.
Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), the committee's top Democrat, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he will not release his freeze on committee action unless the House undoes the rule changes, and he said he has begun recruiting Republicans to back him. He said he may use a tactic known as a discharge petition, which could force a bill to the floor if enough Republicans back him.
"This will have to be resolved on the House floor," Mollohan said. "These rules undermine the ability of the committee to do its job. Republicans are not going to want to be part of impeding the work of the committee."
The ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is the only panel split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, giving the minority party leverage it does not have anywhere else in the House.
Ron Bonjean, Hastert's communications director, said the party's leaders have no intention of giving in. "It's very clear we're at an impasse caused by Democrat partisan politics," he said. "The House has already voted on rules for this Congress, and there is no credible reason to do it again."
The ethics protest came after a week of unrelenting bad news for DeLay, who was briefly taken to a hospital Thursday after he experienced what his staff called fatigue related to a heart arrhythmia. Two Sundays ago, CBS's "60 Minutes" aired a 12-minute segment reminding a national audience that a Democratic district attorney in Austin is continuing to suggest he might indict DeLay as part of an investigation of the involvement of money from Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee founded by DeLay, in the state's redistricting controversy.
On Wednesday, the New York Times said documents entered as evidence in a civil trial in Austin "suggest that Mr. DeLay was more actively involved than previously known in gathering corporate donations for" the committee, known as TRMPAC.
On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that DeLay and other members, including some Democrats, had accepted trips from the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, which had registered as a foreign agent. That would make the trips a violation of House rules, although both DeLay and the group said he was not told about the registration until last week.
Dan Allen, DeLay's communications director, said his boss was a natural target for Democrats. "Congressman DeLay is a fixture of the conservative movement who's been a very effective leader that works with Republicans to get results," he said. "That alone makes him a target of the Democrats and their allies, but it is also the reason he enjoys the steadfast support of House Republicans."
Smith, the new Texan on the ethics committee, said the TRMPAC fundraising breakfast -- which invited supporters to spend as much as $10,000 for "underwriter" status -- would not interfere with his new duties. "When someone joins this committee, they make a solemn vow to protect the integrity of the House of Representatives," he said through an aide. "That means that every decision has to be based on the merits, not partisanship."