After Abramoff, a GOP Scramble

By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 6, 2006

An internal battle is underway among House Republicans to permanently replace Rep. Tom DeLay (Tex.) as majority leader and put in place a new leadership lineup that is better equipped to deal with the growing corruption scandal.

Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (Mo.) will ask House Republicans to make his temporary tenure permanent early next month if, as is likely, DeLay is unable to clear his name in the gathering corruption and campaign finance scandals, according to a member of the GOP leadership and several leadership aides.

The move would almost certainly touch off a GOP power struggle between Blunt, whose rise to power was heavily aided by DeLay and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio), a former House leader who has been maneuvering for a comeback.

But other potential candidates could add unexpected twists, especially if rank-and-file Republicans decide that neither Blunt nor Boehner would present a fresh response to the corruption scandal triggered by Jack Abramoff, a GOP lobbyist with close ties to DeLay.

Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, recently said in an Internet chat that he had "no present intention of seeking any leadership position at this time" but that circumstances could change.

A potential bid by Pence, who has angered some members with what they consider grandstanding on a host of issues, has prompted some conservatives to reach out to the low-key Rep. John Shadegg (Ariz.) as an alternative. Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.) has announced his intention to run for a leadership post, saying yesterday that "the leadership of Congress needs to be above reproach." Other dark horses could emerge as members scramble for a consensus candidate.

Hastert appears secure in the speakership, despite his own ties to Abramoff-related fundraising and other activities. Abramoff's guilty pleas have renewed scrutiny of a letter the speaker sent to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton in June 2003 urging her to block a casino opposed by Abramoff's Indian tribe clients. The letter was sent just days after Abramoff's tribal clients contributed more than $20,000 to Hastert's political action committee at a fundraiser at Signatures, the swank restaurant the lobbyist owned at the time.

Abramoff's guilty pleas this week and pledge to cooperate with federal prosecutors in investigating members of Congress could significantly add to DeLay's legal problems. But the more immediate threat is the legal battle in Texas over his indictments on campaign finance violations. DeLay had hoped that the court battle with Travis County Prosecutor Ronnie Earle over the money-laundering charges would be well underway by now, if not over. Instead, the case is dragging on over multiple appeals and pretrial motions.

"I would have told you a month ago we'd be in trial by now, but that was before Ronnie Earle pulled his shenanigans with his frivolous appeals," said Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's lead attorney in the case.

Now, the Justice Department's bribery and corruption investigation has forced one former DeLay aide, Michael Scanlon, to plead guilty to corruption charges, while another, Tony C. Rudy, has been implicated in Abramoff's plea agreement.

Leadership aides and DeLay allies said that, in light of the Texas case and Abramoff's plea agreements, they now expect DeLay to soon renounce claims to the leadership post he was forced to relinquish under GOP House rules when he was indicted in September -- and certainly before a planned House Republican retreat on Feb. 9.

"The environment has changed. I don't even need to qualify that," said the GOP leadership member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he does not want to be seen as pressuring DeLay to step aside.

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