By Shailagh Murray and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 29, 2005
As the legal troubles mounted for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in recent weeks, he and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert talked repeatedly to craft a detailed strategy for the Republican leadership for the day when a long-feared indictment arrived.
DeLay, according to several GOP sources, knew that House rules would give him no choice but to step down immediately. But he made clear to Hastert, his longtime friend and protege, that he was determined to fight the charges and return to power as soon as possible.
What he and Hastert wanted was a timeserver, someone to hold the job but with no ambitions to stay in it. And they had someone in mind. This week, an aide to the speaker approached Rep. David Dreier about his role in a post-DeLay caucus. Dreier, a congenial Californian who has loyally served the GOP leadership as Rules Committee chairman, expressed interest in helping Hastert.
There was one big problem: When DeLay's indictment was unsealed yesterday, conservatives in the GOP caucus immediately erupted in anger over rumors that the selection of Dreier, whom they regard as too moderate, was being presented as a fait accompli .
As the conservatives met to vent frustrations and plot options, Hastert was changing course in a separate meeting on the second floor of the Capitol. Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the majority whip, was making a personal appeal for the promotion. Hastert agreed, forestalling a possible revolt by conservatives, who regard Blunt as one of their own.
The wild day of maneuvering made clear that beneath the image of lockstep discipline in the House -- which DeLay himself enforced for years -- the GOP caucus is rife with ambitious personalities in not-so-subtle competition. With DeLay sidelined, it will fall largely to Hastert to move President Bush's agenda and to maintain order among an increasingly restless crowd as the 2006 elections approach.
Hastert's challenge was vividly highlighted yesterday by the mood at a private late-afternoon meeting of the House Republican Conference, with nearly all members in attendance.
Some lawmakers, such as Zach Wamp (Tenn.) challenged Republican leaders to set a date for formal leadership elections instead of allowing party bosses to impose their choices. At the same time, conservatives such as Steve Buyer (Ind.) rose to say Republicans should have allowed DeLay to remain majority leader even with an indictment. Earlier this year, under pressure from Democrats and a few in his own party, Hastert reversed a rule designed expressly for DeLay that would have allowed indicted leaders to retain their positions.
Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.) said afterward that the rules change "was like waving a red flag to Ronnie Earle," the Texas prosecutor who pushed for DeLay's indictment. Feeney said some conservatives may push for still another reversal, allowing DeLay to return even before his legal problems are resolved.
Despite the brave face, however, many Republicans said privately it is unlikely DeLay will return to his leadership position anytime soon, if ever. This would open the door for members such as Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), chairman of the House education committee, to run for a leadership position. Blunt, a teacher turned politician who first was elected to the House in 1996, is at least temporarily now the number two Republican in the House.
Many Republicans said they are more comfortable with Blunt, who as whip had been in the number three job. His conservative positions on issues are similar to DeLay's. He also is considered an effective legislative operator, with strong ties to the Washington lobbying community. "He had an edge from the get-go," said Rep. David Joseph Weldon (Fla.).
DeLay and Hastert handpicked Blunt in 1999 to become chief deputy whip, just a few years after he won his House seat. Blunt rose to the whip job in 2003, after DeLay became majority leader.
In Missouri, the Blunt organization is a family affair. Son Matt, 34, is governor, and son Andrew, 29, is a top state-government lobbyist whose client list is studded with major donors to his father.
As majority whip, Blunt, even more than DeLay before him, has created a formal alliance with K Street lobbyists, empowering corporate representatives and trade association executives to assist the House leadership in counting votes and negotiating amendments to bring holdouts into the fold.
Last year, when the House leadership faced apparently insurmountable odds in passing legislation eliminating a $50 billion export tax break, the lobbying community stepped in to add billions of new tax breaks for major corporations with facilities in nearly every district -- General Electric, Boeing, Caterpillar, United Technologies, Honeywell and Emerson. The support built up majority backing for the measure.
Blunt's best-known special-interest intervention was a 2003 late-night attempt -- unsuccessful, as it turned out -- to add an amendment sought by Philip Morris. Blunt's son then was a lobbyist for Philip Morris in Missouri; Blunt himself was dating a Philip Morris lobbyist whom he later married, and he had received more than $150,000 in contributions from the company and subsidiaries.
In a sign of DeLay's confidence he will return, he will keep his majority leader office in the Capitol rather than vacate it for Blunt.
DeLay found a friendly audience last night at a banquet of Stand for Israel, an organization of evangelical Christians and Jews, which gave him a standing ovation.
"So how was your day?" DeLay said, producing a burst of laughter. "It's really good to be here among so many old friends and brothers and sisters in the cause for justice and human freedom," he said. "Today, as you may know, the justice part has taken on a particularly personal meaning for me. And in case you were wondering, ladies and gentlemen, I fear no evil. The truth is on my side. And make no mistake about it -- justice will be served."
Staff writers Thomas B. Edsall and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.