By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 5, 2005
Tom DeLay sneaks around the Capitol like a fugitive these days, using back doors and basement passages to avoid television cameras. He skips meetings where reporters might get a chance to film his answers to their questions. He makes unscheduled appearances so he won't attract a media mob and disrupt colleagues' events.
And it still doesn't work.
At 11 yesterday morning, the House majority leader made an unannounced stop at a meeting of a high-tech group. But word got out, and a score of reporters, producers, photographers, cameramen and sound men with boom microphones were there to greet him. When he left midway through the meeting, the pack chased him down a hall and up the stairs, shouting questions about the House ethics committee, which may investigate him, and prosecutor Ronnie Earle in Austin, who already is.
"Earle says you're America's problem," a questioner shouted. "What do you say to that?"
DeLay said nothing to that. He scrambled through a crowd of tourists -- one of whom filmed the pack as it chased the Texas Republican -- and disappeared into the unmarked back door to his office. It was another routine morning for the former exterminator who is now the most hunted man in Congress.
Yesterday's installment of the chase began at 9 a.m., at the weekly meeting of the GOP House caucus. Last week, DeLay tried to thwart reporters by using the back door, but this backfired and he found himself cornered by cameras in the bowels of the Capitol, calling for security. Now, reporters suspect, he has aides figure out which entrance has the fewest cameras.
Through good scouting or good luck, DeLay encountered only a couple of cameras as he entered and left the caucus meeting yesterday through the front door. "My camera's at the back door!" one producer protested. "Sorry about that," the majority leader said with a grin. As the journalists stalked DeLay, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert came and went, attracting about as much attention as if he were still an Illinois high school wrestling coach.
At 10 a.m., the House GOP leadership called a news conference to celebrate its achievements over the past 100 days. The session attracted all the leadership heavyweights: Hastert, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Conference Chair Deborah Pryce, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier. But DeLay was conspicuously absent.
Pryce lamented that the House Republicans' passage of tort, bankruptcy, energy and class-action legislation "is not getting a ton of play." And it quickly became clear why. After the lawmakers had their say, the first questioner turned the subject to DeLay, asking about possible changes in travel restrictions for members.
"I've always urged members to travel," Hastert ventured, "to have this type of intercourse with the world."
The only safe place in public for DeLay these days is the House floor, where he is surrounded by affectionate colleagues and journalists are not allowed to speak. Stopping in to vote after lunch, DeLay gave a brief shoulder rub to the Republican floor leader, then worked the room as his party voted down a Democratic amendment on an education bill.
Things are not so friendly out in the corridors, where cameras lurk. When a photographer caught him slipping out the back door of his office last week, DeLay shouted for the photos to stop. For his weekly session with the news media -- off camera -- reporters yesterday were herded into DeLay's office, while the leader was escorted into the back entrance by bodyguards and his press secretary.
There, away from the cameras, DeLay gave vent to his anger. Told that Democrats are seeking bipartisan support for new ethics rules, he laughed and said: "I bet they are. I'm not interested in the water that they're carrying for some of these leftist groups."
Asked about criticism of his ethics from an outside organization, he replied: "You really think a leftist group like that will have an impact on people that support me and support what I'm trying to accomplish here? Heh, heh, heh. I don't think so."
DeLay said he is "absolutely" confident he'll be vindicated, and he hinted at a line of defense against charges that he improperly went on travel funded by a lobbyist. "I think most members have done things on what they understand to be on the up and up," he said. "They may not understand the rules, which are confusing, but I don't know of any member that has intentionally tried to break the House rules or circumvent them."
At the start, DeLay thanked questioners in advance for "sticking to the agenda," and not his ethics controversy. A few obliged, but others pressed him on his troubles, and DeLay yielded to the inevitable.
By the end of the half-hour session, the majority leader was raising the ethics fracas himself. Asked about this week's British elections, he replied wryly. "I'm having enough of a time here to worry about what goes on in London," he said, adding: "Maybe I could take a trip to see it."