By Jonathan Weisman and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), a primary architect of the Republican majority who became one of the most powerful and feared leaders in Washington, told House allies last night that he will give up his seat rather than face a reelection fight that appears increasingly unwinnable.
The decision came three days after Tony C. Rudy, his former deputy chief of staff, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and corruption charges, telling federal prosecutors of a criminal enterprise being run out of DeLay's leadership offices. Rudy's plea agreement did not implicate DeLay in any illegal activities, but by placing the influence-buying efforts of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff directly in DeLay's operation, the former aide may have made an already difficult reelection bid all but out of reach.
DeLay, who will turn 59 on Saturday, did not say precisely when he would step down, but under Texas law he must either die, be convicted of a felony, or move out of his district to be removed from the November ballot. DeLay told Time magazine that he is likely to change his official residence from Sugar Land, Tex., to Alexandria by the end of May. He said he informed President Bush of his decision yesterday afternoon.
"This had become a referendum on me," he told Time in an article posted on the magazine's Web site last night. "So it's better for me to step aside and let it be a referendum on ideas, Republican values and what's important for this district."
"I'm a realist. I've been around awhile," he added. "I can evaluate political situations." Asked if he had done anything illegal or immoral in public office, DeLay replied: "No."
Former aides and sources close to DeLay said his decision was motivated not by Rudy's guilty plea but by DeLay's concerns that he might lose his suburban Houston seat to his Democratic opponent, former representative Nick Lampson, and his belief that another Republican could win instead.
DeLay's reelection race was expected to be one of the most expensive House campaigns in history and a drain on GOP coffers. The timing of DeLay's resignation could affect how the seat is filled.
Depending on when DeLay steps down, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) could call a special election to fill the vacancy. It would be up to local GOP officials to replace DeLay formally on the ballot in November, but party officials say that the winner of a special election -- assuming it is a Republican -- would almost certainly be placed on the fall GOP ballot.
Republicans said that, with DeLay gone, they have a much better chance of holding the seat. Although redistricting took some Republicans out of the district, Bush won 64 percent of the vote there in 2004. According to GOP sources, one almost-certain candidate is Sugar Land Mayor David G. Wallace. Tom Campbell, who was second to DeLay in the primary with 30 percent of the vote, said last night he would run in any special election.
Senior House Republicans have been saying for several weeks that DeLay would make his decision based on what was best for the GOP. Indeed, Democratic House campaign officials have been hoping to face DeLay in November, considering him the weakest Republican candidate they could hope for.
DeLay got a temporary political boost last month when he fended off three challengers to win the Republican primary with 62 percent of the vote. But recent polls showed an uphill climb against Lampson and another former congressman, Steve Stockman, who had cut his ties to the Republican Party to run as an independent. In early January, a Houston Chronicle poll showed DeLay trailing Lampson 30 percent to 22 percent, with Stockman taking 11 percent.
A December poll by CNN, USA Today and Gallup also indicated that a credible Democrat could beat DeLay.
Richard Cullen, DeLay's attorney, said yesterday evening that his client's decision to withdraw was "not connected to the criminal investigation."
Cullen said: "This decision was made before the Rudy plea. That didn't enter into it. It was personal and political."
DeLay's decision capped a long, difficult slide from power that began in September, when a Texas grand jury charged him with money laundering and campaign finance violations. Under House Republican rules, DeLay had no choice but to relinquish his post as majority leader, but he vowed to beat the charges and quickly return to power.
In the ensuing months, the separate federal corruption probe stemming from Abramoff's activities drew closer to DeLay, first eliciting a guilty plea from his former press secretary, Michael Scanlon, and then from Abramoff, whom DeLay once described as "one of my closest and dearest friends." Some House Republicans publicly stated that DeLay could not be allowed to return to the House leadership if his implication in the Abramoff scandal appeared inevitable.
In January, DeLay bowed to pressure from fellow Republicans and abandoned his quest to regain the majority leader's post. At that time he pledged to seek reelection, and he quickly snared a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee.
His renunciation of the leader's post touched off a scramble among Republicans eager to move past the DeLay era. A month later, Rep John A. Boehner (Ohio) upset DeLay's protege, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), to win the highest position in the Republican conference, effectively ending the DeLay era of leadership that stretched back to Dec. 6, 1994, and the Republican Revolution.
When Republicans swept to power that year, DeLay capitalized on his fundraising prowess in a successful race for majority whip against Rep. Robert S. Walker (Pa.). DeLay, a former exterminator, had already been in Congress since 1985, and his fundraising largess, especially with the huge freshman class of 1994, helped him overtake Walker, who was Rep. Newt Gingrich's best friend.
DeLay became perhaps the most effective whip in modern House history. He corralled Republicans into a lock-step discipline that blocked much of President Bill Clinton's agenda in the 1990s, engineered Clinton's impeachment -- the first time a president had been impeached in more than 100 years -- and later turned the House into Bush's firewall against Senate Republican dissent.
Beyond those legislative accomplishments, DeLay worked to turn Washington's lobbying and business community into a bulwark of Republican support, dispensing legislative favors to those who played along. He was admonished by the House ethics committee in 1999 for retaliating against a trade association that hired a Democrat.
But his take-no-prisoners style did not begin to undermine his authority until 2002 -- when, in an unprecedented power play, he jumped into Texas politics to help secure a Republican majority in the state legislature, then personally pushed a redistricting plan to secure six additional House seats for his GOP majority. During the redistricting fight, Texas Democrats fled the state, in an ultimately futile effort to deny Republicans the quorum needed for a final vote.
In 2004, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct rebuked DeLay for asking federal aviation officials to track a plane ferrying Democrats to Oklahoma. The panel also rebuked him for improperly pressuring a fellow Republican to vote for the GOP's Medicare prescription drug benefit and for creating the appearance that Westar Energy Inc. received special consideration in exchange for campaign donations.
The Texas redistricting fight is seen by some as a crowning political achievement but also as his undoing. Travis County's Democratic prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, secured an indictment on charges that DeLay solicited business contributions, then laundered them through Washington and into the campaign coffers of Republican state legislative candidates. Texas law forbids business donations to state House campaigns.
The indictment cost DeLay his leadership post, but the redistricted map may have cost him his seat. DeLay gave up some GOP strongholds in his district to help elect new Republicans in neighboring districts, bringing his own majority down to 55 percent in the 2004 election. This election year promised to be far more difficult.
Staff writers R. Jeffrey Smith and Dan Balz in Washington and Sylvia Moreno in Austin contributed to this report.