Increasingly Embattled, DeLay Scales Back Usual Power Plays

By John F. Harris and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 9, 2005

In the euphemism favored on Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is "not staff driven." Translation: He is used to doing what he wants.

It happens all the time, DeLay friends and advisers say. An aide will suggest that the leader soften his tone, or back off just a bit from some inflammatory position. As often as not, the Texas Republican will respond with a snort, suggesting that the adviser is more worried about how a decision will play inside the Beltway than how it will be perceived -- if it is noticed at all -- by the rest of the country.

For a full decade, the 58-year-old DeLay's career has prospered because he was usually right in this calculation, say legislators from both parties who have watched him in action. DeLay could be himself -- a partisan with a zeal for ideological combat, a taste for high living and intense religious conviction -- in ways that made him exceptionally powerful in Congress but not especially recognizable to the public beyond.

Suddenly, the old Texas brio that carried him through years of smaller controversies is on the wane. The leader recognizes -- belatedly, some GOP colleagues say -- that the latest questions about his relationships with lobbyists are a problem threatening his career and the GOP majority he helped to build and sustain since coming to the House 20 years ago. Everywhere there are signs of a politician in retreat.

DeLay's prowess in fundraising, for instance, was always a pillar of his power in the House. Lining up a corporate aircraft to ferry him to an event was usually arranged with a single phone call. These days, Republican officials report that they are having trouble finding available aircraft -- as businesses fret that DeLay may be radioactive.

DeLay, likewise, usually no longer attends joint news conferences of the GOP leadership. His presence, Republicans say, would distract from the party's message about gas prices or other topics of the day.

And through numerous previous controversies, DeLay and his staff always made it a point of pride that once a week when Congress was in session, he would meet reporters in his conference room -- no holds barred. Now, these sessions begin with the leader reciting a preamble about "ground rules" -- all questions not relating to the party's House floor agenda are verboten.

Even among loyalists, DeLay receives regular reminders of his troubles. Among House committee chairmen, an essential part of his power base, there are disagreements about what his strategy should be -- whether to continue to go on the offense against critics, or try to turn down the volume on DeLay's truculent defense in the hope that the controversy will die down.

There are few signs of that yet. To the contrary, the majority leader finds himself simultaneously a leading character on the evening news, in the "Doonesbury" comic strip and on "Saturday Night Live."

"The demonization of Tom DeLay has been a sport in this town that has gone on for a long period of time, and clearly it is moving beyond the Beltway," said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), who spends much of his workweek in meetings with DeLay. "We acknowledge that. But that doesn't make it necessarily more successful. DeLay is a guy who, when people are attacking, he just puts his head down and charges right ahead."

On the House floor, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he sees a forlorn figure, a man with a drawn face and sad bearing. Coming from one of the House's more partisan Democrats, the observation was offered with no special sympathy. But it reflects the insight of someone who has been there -- Frank was embroiled in an ethics contretemps of his own in the 1980s.

DeLay friends do not dispute these observations, agreeing that the personal toll is becoming increasingly obvious. "He's withdrawn, he's tired, he looks like he's not sleeping," said a Republican aide who has worked closely with DeLay, but who agreed to share his observations only on the condition of anonymity.

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