By R. Jeffrey Smith and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 5, 2006
Under siege from state and federal probes into his actions and those of his closest aides and advisers, Rep. Tom DeLay had considered resigning on several occasions over the past four months. But he waited until after he had vanquished his challengers in the Republican primary to deny them the chance to become his successor, associates said.
DeLay's decision was also provoked by recent poll results that showed he faced a stiff challenge in November, the associates said.
They also cited what the Texas Republican has privately described at his frustration at no longer being a part of the House leadership, and his diminished satisfaction with rank-and-file congressional life. The lawmaker was forced to relinquish the post of majority leader after being indicted in Texas on a felony money-laundering charge last October; he had served in the job since 2002 and had been majority whip before then.
DeLay's decision allowed him to set the terms of his departure, avoiding what could have been a personally devastating loss at the polls in November. DeLay was determined to hang on to his seat at least through the primary, said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. That was because he considered his three Republican challengers gadflies and traitors and he was determined to try to block them from succeeding him.
Several associates said DeLay was particularly influenced by poll results he received after his victory in the Republican primary on March 7, which made clear that his "negatives" in the district -- a routine tally of voters' emotional hostility toward him -- were high. That meant a close race would be won only with substantial effort and cash.
An additional impetus for putting off the resignation until now was suggested by John Feehery, a former aide to DeLay and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "He needed to raise money for the defense fund. That was the bottom line," Feehery said. "He wanted to make sure he could take care of himself in the court of law." Under federal campaign rules, any reelection money a lawmaker raises can be used to pay legal fees stemming from official duties.
DeLay's decision to resign from the chamber he once ruled with a clenched fist gave some Republicans hope that the party can move beyond a burgeoning corruption scandal as the congressional election season heats up. That scandal so far has led to guilty pleas to corruption charges by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, once a close ally of DeLay's, and former DeLay aides Michael Scanlon and Tony C. Rudy, who worked with Abramoff after leaving their Capitol Hill jobs.
But Democrats vowed that they would not let their opponents slip the noose of what they have labeled a "culture of corruption."
"When a person steps down, it inflates the severity of the situation, and if they think after Tony Rudy, Jack Abramoff and the other guys the country will stop debate on these issues, they've got another thing coming," Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said yesterday. "Federal prosecutors don't care about Republican spin."
In a lengthy videotaped statement, DeLay formally said he will resign the suburban Houston seat he has held for 11 terms, taking his trademark jabs at "liberal Democrats" eager for an election fight and those he said are ready to misinterpret his every move.
"With the news of my decision, there of course will be great speculation among the political pundits and media about my reasons both for this decision and its timing. I'm quite certain most will put forth their opinions and conclusions devoid of and unencumbered by accuracy, facts and truth," he said. "I have no fear whatsoever about any investigation into me or my personal or professional activities."
The associates acknowledged that DeLay made his decision against the backdrop of a felony criminal charge in Texas that is unlikely to be resolved quickly, and amid growing interest by the Justice Department and the FBI in his family finances and the official actions he took at the behest of aides who recently pleaded guilty to involvement in a criminal conspiracy.
But DeLay -- as well as his associates -- said the decision resulted from his desire to avoid a defeat at the hands of voters in his district rather than a calculated effort to deflect any investigation.
GOP leaders were quick to praise the man who helped secure Republican control of the House and turn Washington into a bastion of Republican support. But when pushed, several Republicans conceded that DeLay bore some responsibility for the scandals that drove him from power -- scandals that reached into his House leadership offices.
"At the end of the day, the members are responsible for what happens in their offices and are responsible for their staff," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who now occupies the leadership suite where Rudy and Abramoff say they traded funds and favor for legislative action. "And clearly, there were several . . . former staffers for Tom who ran off the road, and it is sad and unfortunate."
DeLay's potential legal challenges have increased in the past three months, as Abramoff, Scanlon and Rudy struck deals with a federal task force to gain reduced prison terms in exchange for their cooperation in a continuing public corruption probe. DeLay alluded in a Time magazine interview this week to being "hit" as a result of Abramoff's guilty plea in January.
As a government official familiar with the investigation said, a noteworthy aspect of the plea deals is the "dramatic premium" the Justice Department evidently places on obtaining information that might implicate others. For DeLay, this official said, "the federal case is going to get worse before it gets better."
But Richard Cullen, a key member of DeLay's defense team, said the resignation decision was not provoked by anything federal investigators have recently said. Several of DeLay's associates said that yesterday's announcement was jarring only to those not privy to DeLay's political anxieties stretching back to the 2004 race, when he won by his slimmest margin ever. "You get concerned" when you barely win against a middling opponent, a top DeLay adviser said.
Starting in December, DeLay's private polling pointed out serious political problems. At first, it suggested a roughly even voter split with former congressman Nick Lampson, the Democratic nominee. But it also showed that nearly eight in 10 voters were already firmly decided on one of the two candidates -- a rarity for a House race, especially considering that the general election was 11 months away. That meant changing minds would be costly.
The March 7 primary in which DeLay defeated three little-known Republicans with 62 percent provided a temporary boost for his campaign. But a poll DeLay commissioned two weeks ago to measure his progress with voters since December found no shift in the overall electorate since January.
That survey stoked concern in the DeLay operation because he had experienced a relatively positive run of media coverage in the past few months, and some fretted that if that was his high-water mark, he would be hard-pressed to win in November. The tally weighed heavily on DeLay after it was presented to him last week.
Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.), one of DeLay's strongest allies, said that although the former majority leader had "a sense of euphoria" after winning his primary race, this elation evaporated after he realized he would have to raise as much as $10 million to compete in the general election.
DeLay discussed his decision with Cullen last Wednesday, and he started informing others about it on Thursday. Few lawmakers or associates tried to talk him out of it, one of his advisers and others said.
"I don't think there was encouragement [for him to leave], but I think there's a great deal of relief," Feehery said. "It was a soap opera, and people are tired of soap operas. They want to get to work."
With DeLay expected to be out of Congress by mid-June, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Texas Republican officials expressed confidence that Republicans could easily retain a district that gave President Bush 64 percent of the vote in 2004. Former GOP congressman Steve Stockman, who threatened to run in the general election as an independent, said he may run as a Republican instead, joining a wide field of potential DeLay successors. They include Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace, who is organizing a campaign; Harris County Judge Robert Eckels; Tom Campbell, the second-place finisher in last month's Texas primary; Houston City Council member Shelley Sekula-Gibbs; former state district judge John Devine; and state Rep. Robert Talton.
DeLay said he would move his official residence to Alexandria and vowed to stay involved in grass-roots conservative causes and expand a foster-care program he started in Texas.
Friends and associates of DeLay say they think he can make a prosperous future for himself as a corporate-paid legislative strategist, book author and speaker.
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza in Washington and Post staff writers Juliet Eilperin, Jim VandeHei and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum in Washington and Sylvia Moreno in Sugar Land, Tex., contributed to this report.