In House GOP Brawl, Whip's Skills Counted for Survival
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 1998; Page A1
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has a reputation as perhaps the meanest and most ideologically combative conservative in the House Republican leadership. Renowned as "The Hammer" for his hardball fund-raising tactics, DeLay was the most ardent advocate this fall of trying to exploit the Clinton sex scandal for political advantage.
Yet in the wake of last week's GOP election debacle and House Speaker Newt Gingrich's stunning decision to step aside, DeLay has been the only House GOP leader immune to a direct challenge or condemnation from the rank and file. While a darling of conservatives, he has also proven to be acceptable to moderates and the new best friend and vote counter for Gingrich's presumed successor, Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.).
"It's amazing, but somehow he has emerged as the white knight," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), a leader of the House GOP moderates. "Even those who disagree with him in principle are not inclined to take him on."
The extraordinary survival of the hard-edged conservative and onetime Houston pest exterminator at a time when many in his party are counseling a more moderate approach is a testament to his political cunning, extraordinary effectiveness in promoting his party's agenda and his power to dispense favors to members.
For the past four years, DeLay has presided over the largest and most efficient vote-counting and patronage-dispensing organization on Capitol Hill. He has a network of 65 savvy and extremely loyal House Republican vote counters and assistant whips who keep close tabs on the mood and voting inclination of members and who turn up the heat to pass priority GOP agenda items.
DeLay serves as the leadership's eyes and ears, passing up the line the complaints of individual members, suggestions or requests for assistance. As a high-ranking leader and a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, DeLay has been relentless in lining up support for members' pet pork-barrel projects and minor legislation. The whip's office caters to members' every whim, providing food and drink during late nights on the floor, and DeLay has traveled extensively raising money for congressional Republicans.
"First and foremost, he's a damn good whip," said John P. Feehery, a Republican strategist and former DeLay aide. "When you're talking about facing a slimmer Republican majority in the House, you have to have someone who knows where the votes are. They don't want to lose him and his ability to count votes."
Rep. David M. McIntosh (Ind.), a leader of the House GOP conservatives, said that Delay has a strong base of support and would be hard to unseat. "He's one of the guys perceived to have done a good job last time," McIntosh said. "He didn't lose many votes on the floor. He brought members' concerns to the leadership's attention."
Even House Democrats grudgingly give DeLay credit for running a tough shop. "DeLay is the most talented vote-counter in the place, and has a reputation for being mean," said a House Democratic leadership aide. "So no one want to take him on. . . . He had the good judgment early on that he should just solidify his position rather than trying to move up."
DeLay, 51, won the whip's job in 1994 after tireless fund-raising for many of the 73 freshmen who brought the GOP to power. When it came time to vote, the new majority chose him to be the party's chief vote-counter over then-Rep. Robert S. Walker (Pa.), a longtime ally of Gingrich.
But DeLay proved to be an unreliable ally. In 1997, he gave his approval to some of his young conservative friends when they tried to oust Gingrich for abandoning conservative principles. When the "coup" failed, DeLay owned up and apologized to Gingrich -- and succeeded in holding on to his job.
By contrast, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) denied having any role in the abortive coup effort, and by doing so gained the undying enmity of some of the conservative revolutionaries.
"One of Tom's strengths is that when he says something, he keeps his word," McIntosh said. "He's got that kind of trust and respect. . . . That's why Tom came out of the coup unscathed and Armey lost support. People thought [Armey] lied."
Ironically, DeLay and Livingston began the Republican revolution four years ago as archenemies. During the 1995 budget crisis, Livingston became furious when DeLay and his conservative troops loaded up his spending bills with ideologically inspired amendments that were certain to draw a veto.
DeLay, a former small-businessman himself, saw the anti-regulatory riders as a crucial part of what the revolution was all about. As far as he was concerned, Livingston was representing the old log-rolling appropriations ethos. "I'm sick and tired of you bellyaching," DeLay snapped at Livingston during a tense meeting in Armey's office. "We're trying to change America here."
The hot-tempered Livingston replied with an expletive.
But over time, the two leaders worked out an accommodation, and over the weekend, DeLay pledged his loyalty -- and the assistance of his sophisticated political network -- to helping Livingston nail down the final votes he needs to be speaker.
"I don't know how many [Republicans] he brought to the table for Livingston, but he made numerous calls and hopefully was able to bring quite a few," said Michael Scanlon, DeLay's communications director.
DeLay, the radical conservative, and Livingston, more the pragmatist, will have plenty of kinks to work out in their budding relationship, conservative and moderate Republicans agree. While both are concerned about getting the House to operate more smoothly, Livingston is far less concerned than DeLay in advancing a conservative agenda. However, each will need the other to succeed as their party faces a diminished majority in the House and, therefore, a much narrower margin for error.
"Philosophically one could argue that they are not cut from the same bolt of cloth, but tactically speaking they are," Scanlon said. "They are two individuals who put great emphasis on performance. Organizational skills are their strong suit. They'll get along just fine."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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