By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 7, 2006
Rank-and-file House Republicans took the first formal step toward permanently replacing Rep. Tom DeLay (Tex.) in the House's leadership by unveiling a petition to hold a special leadership election in the coming weeks.
The petition -- drafted by moderate Reps. Charles Bass (N.H.) and Christopher Shays (Conn.) and conservative Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) with the support of as many as two dozen members -- is the latest blow to DeLay, who was forced to relinquish his post as majority leader in September after he was indicted in Texas on campaign finance charges. DeLay had hoped that case would be resolved in his favor by the end of January, clearing the way for his return. Instead, it has dragged on through a series of pretrial maneuvers.
Then this week, lobbyist and DeLay ally Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of public corruption and conspiracy and agreed to cooperate with federal investigators in what promises to be one of the largest federal bribery scandals in decades. Abramoff's guilty plea includes multiple references to the actions of Tony C. Rudy -- while he was DeLay's deputy chief of staff -- on Abramoff's behalf.
DeLay has repeatedly asserted that the charges in Texas are a politically inspired vendetta by a Democratic prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, and that he has nothing to fear from the Abramoff probe, with which he says he has cooperated fully.
In recent days, however, prominent Republicans have begun counseling DeLay that he should renounce claims to the majority leader's post, for the good of the party and for the good of his long-term political career, leadership aides and DeLay allies said this week.
"People are worried about the other shoe waiting to drop," Flake said yesterday. "Fairly or not," he said, DeLay has "become the public face of a culture gone bad in Washington."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) yesterday did not try to tamp down the movement toward an election. Since DeLay's late-September indictments, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) has also served as temporary majority leader, but Hastert promised that this arrangement would not go on indefinitely. The leadership structure was supposed to be restored with DeLay's return, not an election.
That is now shifting.
"This is consistent with what the speaker has said, that this would only be a temporary structure and that it would be revisited at the beginning of the year," Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said of the election petition.
Under House Republican Conference rules, the signatures of 50 members would force the convening of a special election conclave. A majority of those present would then have to move for an election.
Since last month, Blunt has planned to ask House Republicans to elect him to DeLay's majority leader post permanently, if, as is now almost certain, DeLay cannot clear his name in the campaign finance and corruption probes by early February, a House leadership member said. The new petition will probably mean a leadership election will be called well before then, perhaps in a few days, Flake said.
"Jack Abramoff's guilty plea and his close association with Tom DeLay underscore the need for a new majority leader in the Republican Party," Shays said in a statement yesterday. "It is time we make it clear that ethics are an essential part of how we do business and our leadership needs to reflect this strong ethical conduct."
DeLay remains defiant, refusing to grant what he sees as a victory to Earle, the Travis County prosecutor.
"Mr. DeLay appreciates that a majority of his colleagues recognize he remains committed to fulfilling his responsibilities as majority leader as soon as he's exonerated in Texas and won't give in to what is essentially character assassination by insinuation," DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said.
But privately, even DeLay aides and supporters acknowledge that time is running out on a comeback. Nearly half a dozen members have called for an election, including Shays, Flake, Bass, and Reps. Ray LaHood (Ill.) and John Kline (Minn.). As many as 30 members are ready to sign the election petition now, said a lobbyist close to DeLay, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
And momentum is building. Flake said he doubts 50 will have to come forward. As early as this weekend, DeLay will renounce his claims to his old post, and leaders will call for an election, Flake said.
That could set off a leadership scramble, as Republicans seek to assemble a new team that can better weather the storms developing around the Abramoff scandal and the recent bribery guilty plea and resignation of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (Calif.). Blunt is expected to be challenged by Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), but other candidates are likely to emerge.