House Republicans proposed changing their rules last night to allow members indicted by state grand juries to remain in a leadership post, a move that would benefit Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in case he is charged by a Texas grand jury that has indicted three of his political associates, according to GOP leaders.
The proposed rule change, which several leaders predicted would win approval at a closed meeting today, comes as House Republicans return to Washington feeling indebted to DeLay for the slightly enhanced majority they won in this month's elections. DeLay led an aggressive redistricting effort in Texas last year that resulted in five Democratic House members retiring or losing reelection. It also triggered a grand jury inquiry into fundraising efforts related to the state legislature's redistricting actions.
House GOP leaders and aides said many rank-and-file Republicans are eager to change the rule to help DeLay, and will do so if given a chance at today's closed meeting. A handful of them have proposed language for changing the rule, and they will be free to offer amendments, officials said. Some aides said it was conceivable that DeLay and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) ultimately could decide the move would be politically damaging and ask their caucus not to do it. But Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), another member of the GOP leadership, said he did not think Hastert and DeLay would intervene.
House Republicans adopted the indictment rule in 1993, when they were trying to end four decades of Democratic control of the House, in part by highlighting Democrats' ethical lapses. They said at the time that they held themselves to higher standards than prominent Democrats such as then-Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.), who eventually pleaded guilty to mail fraud and was sentenced to prison.
The GOP rule drew little notice until this fall, when DeLay's associates were indicted and Republican lawmakers began to worry that their majority leader might be forced to step aside if the grand jury targeted him next. Democrats and watchdog groups blasted the Republicans' proposal last night.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last night: "If they make this rules change, Republicans will confirm yet again that they simply do not care if their leaders are ethical. If Republicans believe that an indicted member should be allowed to hold a top leadership position in the House of Representatives, their arrogance is astonishing."
House Republicans recognize that DeLay fought fiercely to widen their majority, and they are eager to protect him from an Austin-based investigation they view as baseless and partisan, said Rep. Eric I. Cantor (Va.), the GOP's chief deputy whip.
"That's why this [proposed rule change] is going to pass, assuming it's submitted, because there is a tremendous recognition that Tom DeLay led on the issue to produce five more seats" for the Republicans, Cantor said after emerging from a meeting in which the Republican Conference welcomed new members and reelected Hastert and DeLay as its top leaders.
Other Republicans agreed the conference is likely to change the rule if given the chance. An indictment is simply an unproven allegation that should not require a party leader to step aside, said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), a former trial judge, said it makes sense to differentiate between federal and state indictments in shaping party rules because state grand juries often are led by partisan, elected prosecutors who may carry political grudges against lawmakers.
Republicans last night were tweaking the language of several proposals for changing the rule. The one drawing the most comment, by Rep. Henry Bonilla (Tex.), would allow leaders indicted by a state grand jury to stay on. However, a leader indicted by a federal court would have to step down at least temporarily.
"Congressman Bonilla's rule change is designed to prevent political manipulation of the process while preserving the original ethical principles of the rule," Bonilla spokeswoman Taryn Fritz Walpole said.
Hastert and DeLay, meanwhile, are publicly taking a hands-off posture. Hastert told reporters the decision was up to the conference, adding, "we'll see what happens." DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy said his boss "believes we should allow members of the conference to come to their own conclusions and let the conference work its will without him exerting undue influence one way or the other."
A Texas grand jury in September indicted three of DeLay's political associates on charges of using a political action committee to illegally collect corporate donations and funnel them to Texas legislative races. The group, Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, is closely associated with DeLay. DeLay says he has not acted improperly and has no reason to believe he is a target of the grand jury, which continues to look into the TRMPAC matter.
The House ethics committee on Oct. 6 admonished DeLay for asking federal aviation officials to track an airplane involved in the highly contentious 2003 redistricting battle, and for conduct that suggested political donations might influence legislative action. The ethics panel deferred action on a complaint related to TRMPAC, noting that the grand jury has not finished its work.
The Texas investigation is headed by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, an elected Democrat who has been bitterly criticized by DeLay supporters. Yesterday, Cantor called Earle's efforts "a witch hunt."
"It's a totally a partisan exercise," Cantor said. "It's coincidental with what's going on up here [in the Capitol], where they are trying every avenue to go after Tom DeLay because they can't beat him" on the House floor or in congressional elections. Changing the rule is not a sign that lawmakers think DeLay will be indicted, Cantor said, but rather a public rebuke of an investigation they feel is wholly unwarranted.