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How GOP's Enforcer Propelled the Process

DeLay House Majority Whip Thomas DeLay (R-Tex.) talks with reporters. (AFP)

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  • By Eric Pianin and Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page A1

    Tom DeLay, the House majority whip, took time out yesterday from his relentless campaign to impeach President Clinton to field a call from an angry Massachusetts voter.

    "This is Tom DeLay himself," he told the caller, who had demanded that Congress call a halt to impeachment and get back to more important business. "And we are doing . . . what we're supposed to do. But we will impeach this president."

    The third-ranking GOP leader has been dubbed "The Hammer" for his skills at squeezing out votes, and Democrats insist he is still up to his old tricks in applying pressure to wayward Republicans to get behind impeachment.

    But DeLay, in fact, is on the verge of his greatest success thanks to less overtly heavy-handed tactics, according to other members and aides. By offering tough public pronouncements denouncing the president even as other party members urged retreat, the onetime pest exterminator from Houston helped revive the once-faltering impeachment drive. And DeLay engaged in shrewd tactical maneuvering to thwart the Democrats' proposal for a censure alternative that threatened to drain votes away from the impeachment forces.

    "He played the critical leadership role," said John P. Feehery, a GOP strategist and former DeLay aide. "He's the one who spoke out first and most eloquently. . . . He had the clearest vision of what needed to be done."

    Though he is acting like a winner, DeLay is cautious about not sounding like one in advance of the actual House vote later this week. "I'd say that the president is in real trouble," DeLay said in an interview yesterday. "Things are rather sad right now, solemn. This is a very serious thing that the institution of the United States has only done one other time. And it's a tragedy that this president has brought us to this point."

    DeLay, the president's self-proclaimed archenemy, emerged from the Republicans' dismal showing in the November elections more powerful than before. When House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) announced he would step aside, DeLay, the top GOP vote-counter and political enforcer, quickly threw his support to Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and used his whip network to help Livingston seal his victory as speaker.

    And while some Republicans fretted that their party was headed for even worse political disaster unless they derailed impeachment proceedings that were opposed by most Americans, DeLay demanded that Clinton resign and turned up the heat on the House Judiciary Committee proceedings. He eagerly filled the temporary power vacuum caused by Gingrich's abrupt departure and coaxed Livingston to take a tough stand for impeachment and against censure.

    The speaker-to-be obliged last weekend, spurning a Democratic censure vote after the Judiciary Committee voted out four articles of impeachment.

    As one sign of his shrewdness, Delay also persuaded Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), until this week a staunch opponent of impeachment, to co-sign a "Dear Colleague" letter to Republicans arguing against the censure alternative. In effect, DeLay found common ground with a Republican who had said repeatedly he thought his party was headed down a dangerous road in pursuing impeachment.

    Shays this week revealed that he was having second thoughts about his stand against impeachment and has arranged to meet with Clinton to discuss his concerns when the president returns from the Middle East.

    Normally, a big looming vote in the House is attended by air-crackling hubbub and furious last-minute maneuvering by the powerful whip's operation. But DeLay and his allies have been so successful that it appeared his work was almost done, as many of the previously uncommitted Republicans have announced this week they would vote for impeachment.

    For only the second time in history the full House will vote on whether to impeach the president. DeLay has described the impending action as a "vote of conscience" and insists that neither he nor his huge whip organization has sought to put pressure on undecided members.

    "We're not whipping this thing," said Michael Scanlon, a spokesman for the whip organization. "We're not threatening to kill anyone's dog. If we had fast track [trade legislation] up, this place would be on fire right now."

    However, DeLay and Livingston have said publicly they would take a dim view of any Republican who refused to back up the leadership in blocking a floor vote on censure this week.

    With Gingrich gone, many Democrats are now finding DeLay to be their new chief whipping boy. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said recently: "Now, DeLay doesn't count by going knocking on your door saying, 'Would you fill in one of these boxes and send it back to me?' He goes in there with what? The hammer."

    Some Democrats complained that pressure from DeLay and other leaders was behind the announcement yesterday by moderate Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), an early opponent of impeachment, that he has changed his mind and will vote to impeach Clinton. "The Republicans were saying over and over they weren't pressuring people," said a senior House Democratic aide. "For people appalled by the alleged lying of the president, they're pretty hypocritical."

    Both Quinn and DeLay denied that they had conferred before Quinn reversed his position and insisted there was no leadership meddling or pressure.

    DeLay said the Democratic criticism "fits in with the pattern of conduct that the president is in trouble for -- lying, covering up, stonewalling and demonizing their enemies."

    Short of "whipping" his members, DeLay and his office have provided members with reams of material to help them make the preferred decision. His staff has been updating a fat three-ring briefing binder titled, "Our Constitutional Responsibilities. A Special Report prepared by Rep. Tom DeLay."

    Included are such items as Paula Jones's deposition, an impeachment overview prepared by the Congressional Research Service, ample documents from the Watergate era and a memorandum knocking down the arguments for censure.

    When DeLay is not hunting for votes, he's hunting for game. Or he's playing golf (he's a 7 handicap). Or he's serving as an advocate for foster care in Texas, where he is also a foster parent. Here in Washington, however, DeLay is all business and politics.

    "He's not your buddy. He's not your pal. But he's not mean," said an aide.

    DeLay loves a good red wine and usually purchases cases of Radanovich from a local distributor. George P. Radanovich of California, the vintner-turned-congressman, is one of DeLay's deputy whips. DeLay buys the wine and gives it away.

    This kind of care and feeding goes beyond the fermented juice of grapes. On big-vote nights, members have come to expect DeLay's lavish spreads of barbecue and fried chicken when they walk off the floor after delivering the goods. "We'll feed 'em, we'll drink 'em, we'll hail 'em a cab," quips an aide.

    And now, as the most important vote most lawmakers will ever cast looms, DeLay has offered up another courtesy: computers, phones and desk space in his office for about a half-dozen lame-duck Republican House members.

    A hard-edged conservative with close ties to the Christian right, DeLay was among the most aggressive proponents of the "Contract With America" after the Republicans took control of the House in 1995.

    DeLay's career as a leader was nearly ended in the summer of 1997 when he met with conservatives impatient with Gingrich and anxious to overthrow the speaker. When the plot failed, DeLay quietly initiated a survival campaign. At a late-night closed-door meeting of his colleagues, he read a dramatic confession of sorts that he had spent all day preparing.

    It worked.

    Then he left town and headed home to Sugar Land to sit on his back porch with wife Christine, who feared the worst, and he thought about the lessons his father, the oil drilling contractor, had taught him when he was 13 years old. The father would put him on rigs and the roughnecks would get rough with him. But the father's message to young DeLay was: "Can't quit. You have to work out your own problems, son."

    Now DeLay is back, more powerful than ever, and determined to bring down a president who he believes has disgraced his office and violated the Constitution.

    "I do what I believe," DeLay said. "I believe in the Constitution, I believe in this institution, and I believe in the office of the presidency -- and I'm doing what I think is the right thing to do."


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