This is, in so many ways, the House Tom DeLay built.
A week after the Texas Republican helped engineer unexpected GOP gains in congressional elections, his House Republican colleagues today will crown DeLay as majority leader and pack the party's other House leadership positions with his most loyal followers.
DeLay's deputies are expected to easily win their races to become the new majority whip, Republican Conference chairman and vice secretary, and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC. This would represent a clean sweep for DeLay's ever-expanding political operation. "It's the cream rising to the top," DeLay said in an interview yesterday.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) -- whose rise to power four years ago was orchestrated in large part by DeLay -- is assured of winning a third term as head of the House when the 108th Congress convenes in January. Hastert is deeply respected inside the GOP and has shown a willingness to take on DeLay when the two men disagree, which is infrequent. But there's little doubt among leading Republicans that DeLay emerges from last week's elections, in which the party gained at least five House seats, much more influential than he was a year ago.
In his current position of House majority whip -- the party's third-ranking leadership post -- DeLay works mostly behind the scenes, making sure enough votes are corralled to pass key legislation, and taking care of GOP lawmakers by, among other things, steering pet projects to their districts. In his new second-in-command post as majority leader, DeLay will step into the national spotlight as more of a party strategist. He will help set the party's agenda and political course while controlling which bills come to the floor for votes.
His ascension will excite the party's conservative base, but it also might open Republicans to allegations that they are dominated by the right wing. DeLay's power was somewhat checked in recent years by departing Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) and GOP Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.). Both men feuded with DeLay and disagreed with some of his tactics, but they are retiring.
"The role of majority leader puts you in a spokesman role, but I won't be a show horse for the party," DeLay said.
His natural impulse is to pull the party as far to the right as plausible. People close to him already are talking of a more aggressive tax-cutting agenda than Bush might want and, possibly, resisting efforts for a quick compromise on providing the elderly with government-financed prescription drug coverage.
DeLay is less apt than most Republicans to increase spending, particularly for education programs favored by Democrats, and more adamant about placing new restrictions on abortions and advancing the party's broader social agenda. Some of his advisers think the White House is talking up a centrist agenda for political reasons and to box DeLay in early. But the next GOP congressional caucus will be larger and more conservative than the current one, which will put pressure on DeLay not to capitulate. This could become problematic for Bush as he looks to appeal to independent voters in the run-up to his 2004 reelection bid.
By any measure, DeLay remains one of the most divisive figures in contemporary politics. "He's a controversial figure in some districts, certainly mine," says Rep. Christopher Shays, (R-Conn.), a moderate. "But the bottom line is, he's done an extraordinary job" as whip.
DeLay's new, higher profile might make an easier target for Democrats, who have tried -- with limited success -- to make him an ominous symbol of right-wing, religious extremism. Congressional committees and the Federal Election Commission have investigated him for his alleged heavy-handed fundraising.
The House ethics committee formally admonished DeLay in 1998 for pressuring the Electronics Industry Association not to hire former representative Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) as its chief. DeLay wanted former representative Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) to get the job. Other cases filed against DeLay have been dismissed.
In the days before the Nov. 5 elections, the NRCC transferred $1 million to a new group -- co-chaired by DeLay's recently departed chief of staff, Susan Hirschmann, that is expected to become an influential clearinghouse for "soft money'' in the years ahead, expanding DeLay's reach beyond Congress.
Several moderate Republicans, such as Rep. Jim Leach (Iowa), survived Democratic efforts this year to make DeLay and his brand of conservatism a campaign issue. Polls show most Americans don't know who DeLay is, so the strategy appeared questionable from the start.
DeLay has matured as a political leader, GOP lawmakers say, choosing his fights more carefully and, at times, tempering his ambitions and agenda to benefit a party that needs a broad coalition, including Northeast moderates who back abortion rights. After raising concerns about Bush's education policy in 2001, DeLay decided against leading an aggressive effort to defeat the plan and, in the end, voted for it. Just before last week's elections, DeLay postponed votes on social issues and spending cuts, in part, to protect moderate Republicans in difficult reelection races.
"He's definitely maturing," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), a DeLay deputy who is the frontrunner to become Republican Conference chairman, succeeding Watts. "He fights the fights in appropriate battles, then he doesn't wear it on his sleeve like he might have in the past."
Still, DeLay remains a staunch conservative, likely to push the House to the right, legislators said. He'll have plenty of help.
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), his top deputy, is all but certain to replace DeLay as majority whip. Blunt is unchallenged for the position that DeLay turned into a powerful but little-known job, handling members' needs on and off the House floor.
Pryce, a moderate, is the clear favorite in her race against Reps. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) and Jim Ryun (R-Kan.) to become Republican Conference chairman, whose main responsibility is crafting and delivering the GOP's message to voters nationwide. Pryce would become the highest-ranking Republican woman ever in Congress. Her new chief of staff and her press secretary worked until recently for DeLay.
Reps. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) are locked in a tight race for Conference vice chair, while one of DeLay's closest friends in Congress, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) is running unopposed for Conference secretary.
Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) is expected to win the hotly contested race to head the NRCC, which recruits candidates and raises money for House races, party sources said. Reynolds, another DeLay deputy, is running against Rep. Gerald C. Weller (R-Ill.).