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Increasingly Embattled, DeLay Scales Back Usual Power Plays

House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said that what DeLay is going through "is of course very stressful," but Hyde added that DeLay has not gone underground -- "his head is up -- he engages in small talk as well as big talk."

Back home in the Houston district that DeLay calls "Texas 22," Eric Thode, chairman of the Fort Bend Republican Party, said events he has attended with DeLay in recent days have included rousing applause, a clear show of support for an embattled native. But, last November, DeLay won with only 55 percent of the vote against a little-known challenger, and is gearing up for a race next year against a former Democratic congressman who is counting on heavy logistical and financial backing from Democrats nationally.

A coincidence of timing has compounded DeLay's political troubles -- vastly enhancing his national profile when the usual imperatives of scandal management called for lying low. DeLay dismissed cautionary advice from his staff about how vigorously to plunge into the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman who died March 31, 13 days after her feeding tube had been removed. Polls showed the unsuccessful congressional intervention in the Florida court case proved highly unpopular, even with many Republicans.

Then, after comments suggesting possible retribution against federal judges who declined to intervene to keep Schiavo alive, DeLay said his choice of words had been "inartful."

The Schiavo case came just as questions about DeLay's relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff were reaching full boil.

The narrow question in the controversy is whether DeLay ran afoul of House rules in accepting lavish foreign travel apparently financed by Abramoff, who now is under federal investigation. DeLay described Abramoff during a speech in 1998 as "one of my closest and dearest friends," although the majority leader told conservative leaders at a closed-door meeting in March that he had backed away from the lobbyist because of Abramoff's focus on pro-gambling clients.

The broader question is one that has haunted DeLay since 1995, when the GOP took control of Congress during former House speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution. From the outset, there were regular allegations about DeLay's aggressive pursuit of campaign funds from corporate interests, and suggestions that he had given undue influence to business lobbyists in return. DeLay was the enforcer of the party's "K Street Project," designed to install Republicans in key lobbying jobs and squeeze out Democrats. Rather than demurring from his House nickname, "The Hammer," he told colleagues years ago he enjoyed it because it made him more effective.

If aggressive support of business was one side of the DeLay political package, a willingness to aggressively promote his conservative religious philosophy was another. Cumulatively, these made him an apt representative of the two main engines of the modern GOP.

In a 2001 interview with The Washington Post, DeLay complained, "If you stand up today and acknowledge God, they will try to destroy you." His main mission in politics, he said, was "to bring us back to the Constitution and to Absolute Truth that has been manipulated and destroyed by a liberal worldview."

He struck a similarly pious note -- but with a much less combative tone -- last week at a National Day of Prayer gathering on Capitol Hill. "Just think of what we could accomplish if we checked our pride at the door, if collectively we all spent less time taking credit and more time deserving it," DeLay told the group. "If we spent less time on our soapboxes and more time on our knees." He added that God makes all thing possible for "lowly sinners like you and me -- especially me."

One irony of DeLay's predicament is that he is relying on some of the same techniques that his onetime foe, President Bill Clinton, used to weather his storms: Aides emphasize how DeLay's office is "compartmentalized" so that only a few aides work on scandal management, and they insist the majority leader is little distracted from his duties.

Aides said DeLay spends 60 to 70 percent of his time in leadership meetings or sessions with members, with only an occasional visit from a lobbyist. He comes to the office promptly at 9 a.m. when Congress is in session, after working out at the House gym.

Republican officials working with DeLay said it appears to be too late for him to try a more classic damage-control strategy, including a lengthy news conference or appearance on a television news show, an admission of minor mistakes and an expression of contrition.

As explained by insiders, the DeLay survival strategy is to attack the critics, including questioning the motives of reporters and the funding sources of watchdog groups; leak data making it clear that Democrats engaged in many of the same practices; and relentlessly curry loyalty with his two bases outside the Capitol -- national conservative groups and Republicans in his district.

A close adviser, who is involved in damage-control deliberations with DeLay but shared them only on the condition of anonymity, said recent weeks have brought a growing consensus in his inner circle that there is unlikely to be a clear triumph in the Abramoff controversy.

Instead, with Democrats determined to press the controversy -- hypocritically, in the eyes of DeLay's supporters -- the realistic goal is less vindication than to limit the political damage, this adviser said. The widespread assumption within DeLay's office is that the travel allegations are headed for a House Ethics Committee inquiry, which could take months. DeLay allies in Congress acknowledge that there will be pressure from Democrats and Republicans to reprimand the majority leader -- at a minimum. That would be his fourth ethics admonishment, following three that were issued in rapid succession last fall.

Former representative Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) said DeLay "believes very strongly that if you're doing the right thing, you just proceed."

"That's why people may say he doesn't have the patience for the more cautious souls in Washington," she said.

Dreier said that when his close colleagues give DeLay advice, they mostly tell him they wish he would knock off the cigars.

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