GOP Worries Ethics Issue May Hurt Party in '06
Monday, June 6, 2005
ZANESVILLE, Ohio -- After enlarging their majority in the past two elections, House Republicans have begun to fear that public attention to members' travel and relations with lobbyists will make ethics a potent issue that could cost the party seats in next year's midterm races.
In what Republican strategists call "the DeLay effect," questions plaguing House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) are starting to hurt his fellow party members, who are facing news coverage of their own trips and use of relatives on their campaign payrolls. Liberal interest groups have begun running advertising in districts where Republicans may be in trouble, trying to tie the incumbents to their leaders' troubles.
Among those endangered are at least two committee chairmen and several other senior members. Congressional districts that traditionally have been safe for Republicans could become more competitive, according to party officials.
Nowhere is the impact of the ethics issue clearer than here in the Appalachian hills of eastern Ohio, where a thicket of weekly newspapers now gives regular coverage to revelations about House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and his ties to DeLay and Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist now under criminal and congressional investigation for the tens of millions of dollars in fees he and a partner collected from casino-owning Indian tribes.
Ney is known as "the mayor of Capitol Hill," where his committee controls perks that include BlackBerrys, modular furniture and parking spaces. He is a conservative who has thrived in a blue-collar Democratic district, through gestures such as personally giving tours of the Capitol to 5,000 constituents' children each spring. With his warm relations with other lawmakers in both parties and his mastery of the nooks and crannies of the institution, he has been considered a strong contender to move up the House leadership ladder.
Now, all of that is in jeopardy. Ney, 51, has hired a criminal lawyer and is preparing for a grueling inquiry by the House ethics committee. His name also appears frequently in e-mails being studied by investigators at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is looking into lobbyists' dealings with gambling-enriched tribes.
Democrats are using allegations about influence peddling to recruit opponents for several of the chamber's most senior Republicans. DeLay, who just a few years ago seemed invulnerable, now is certain to face a heavily funded Democratic challenge. Former four-term representative Nick Lampson, who lost in November after a redistricting engineered by DeLay, has filed as a candidate in DeLay's suburban Houston district.
House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), a rancher who granted leave to his committee staff of about 40 for the 15 days before the November election and has been questioned about his use of taxpayer funds on fliers favorable to President Bush, was the target of radio ads by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee over Memorial Day and could face a challenge from Democratic state Sen. Michael Machado.
Another Republican in the Democrats' sights is Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.), who as a state official was an aggressive advocate for Bush during the presidential election recount fight of 2000, and has been a key DeLay supporter. Like DeLay, Feeney accepted a trip to South Korea from a group that later declared itself a foreign agent, which would have made the group ineligible to fund trips for lawmakers. Like DeLay, Feeney traveled to Scotland and played golf, accompanied by Abramoff.
Democrats also are going after Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), one of the wealthiest House members, who has battled legal and ethical questions in past campaigns. Republicans hold a 29-seat edge over Democrats in the House (with one vacancy and one independent).
The parties have been so aggressive about redrawing congressional lines to protect incumbents that few seats are in play in any given election. That has made party strategists doubtful that Democrats could retake control until at least 2012, after lines are redrawn following the next census. But Republican officials who had said earlier this year that they would break even in the midterm elections are now talking about possibly losing seats.
Democrats said they plan to capitalize on the junkets issue the same way Republicans leveraged the House bank check-bouncing scandal when they won control of Congress in 1994: as a vivid symbol, understandable to the average voter, of a majority party that has lost touch with voters. A series of polls in the past two months has shown broad dissatisfaction with Congress in general and the Republican leadership in particular, causing the party's strategists to fret that conditions are ripe for change.