The Hammer Comes Down

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2005; 8:12 AM

Back in January, House Republican leaders backed off a rule change that would have allowed senior officials in the chamber--say, maybe the House majority leader--to hold onto their posts even if indicted.

Boy, that looks huge right now.

The leadership caved because of rank-and-file complaints that the party would send a lousy message by protecting one of its leaders who was charged with a crime. And with Tom DeLay's indictment yesterday, it's clear why they were so worried. DeLay stepped aside within minutes.

We have, at the moment, a remarkable situation: The Senate majority leader under investigation because of a questionable stock sale, and the House majority leader is under indictment. Before I finish typing this paragraph, I'm sure Democrats will be declaiming and decrying the lack of ethics in the Republican Party.

And they are sure to add that Republican lobbyist (and close DeLay pal) Jack Abramoff is under indictment in one case and under investigation in others, while the top White House procurement official, David Safavian, was accused last week of lying and obstruction in the Abramoff probe. A special prosecutor is still sniffing around the Valerie Plame leak, and the FDA commissioner quit weeks into his tenure for failing to report holdings on his financial disclosure form, says the NYT .

Many Democrats are particularly happy because the Hammer is a hard-charging partisan who they believe engineered some unfair redistricting in Texas, and had already survived three admonishments by the House ethics committee on other matters.

But before the noise level gets deafening, some caveats.

DeLay is accused of a complicated campaign finance violation that may or may not be easy to prove (he calls it a "sham"). A conspiracy to divert corporate funds into political campaigns will require prosecutors to demonstrate that DeLay knew of the transactions and knew they violated the law. (The same goes for the Bill Frist-as-Martha Stewart scenario.)

DeLay has long argued that the Travis County DA, a Democrat named Ronnie Earle, is after him for political reasons, and yesterday slammed him in a video release as "an unabashed partisan zealot." This will become one of the GOP talking points, and the GOPers will note that Earle's earlier case against Kay Bailey Hutchison fizzled (though he's also prosecuted a passel of Democrats).

Some Repubs are reacting by criticizing the indictment--exactly the sort of thing they scoffed at when Clinton and his allies were ripping Ken Starr's tactics. Sean Hannity (with Colmes banished for the segment) told his first guest he couldn't figure out what the indictment was about. The guest? Tom DeLay, who called the case "ridiculous." Interestingly, DeLay complained about the "politics of personal destruction," a phrase popularized by Bill Clinton, whose ouster the Texan crusaded for ("Anybody who lies to a grand jury ought to be impeached.")

Even if DeLay is acquitted, though, the case could easily drag on for a year or more. So it would be a long time before DeLay could reclaim his post--if indeed he can win reelection next year with this legal cloud hanging over him. On the other hand, it gets him out of the congressional spotlight as a target for the Dems.

The reaction and analysis are built around a single theme--bad news for the GOP and bad news for Bush:

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