House Republicans rallied around Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) yesterday, but they could not prevent news of Tuesday's indictments of three of his political associates from dampening a GOP celebration marking nearly 10 years of House control.
Republican leaders and back-benchers defended DeLay, saying a Texas grand jury's action this week has not shaken their confidence in the 10-term lawmaker. The panel indicted three of DeLay's political associates on charges of illegally collecting corporate donations and funneling them to Texas legislative races.
The grand jury did not interview DeLay, and he said he has done nothing improper. DeLay's House colleagues echoed that claim yesterday, giving him a standing ovation at the GOP caucus's weekly meeting and defending him before reporters.
"When anybody drops indictments 40 days before an election, there's a political spin to it," Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said. "Tom DeLay is somebody I've stood for, I've stood with. . . . I continue to look forward" to working with him.
His comments came at a morning celebration, complete with balloons and cake, marking the nearly 10 years of Republican control of the House. But when Hastert and other leaders stopped for questions, reporters quickly turned to the indictments.
"I've already spoken to that," DeLay said before Hastert and others came to his defense. "I think it has made the [Republican] members even more supportive of the leader," said GOP Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who called the indictments politically motivated.
Democrats, wary of reigniting the type of ethics warfare that inflamed Congress in the 1980s and early 1990s, were generally mum on the matter. Some privately expressed hopes that the indictments would spur action by the House ethics committee, which is weighing a three-month-old complaint against DeLay. Allegations regarding the Texas fundraising are part of the complaint, filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.).
A loosely knit group of eight public interest organizations, calling itself the Congressional Ethics Coalition, yesterday called on the ethics panel to dig into the allegations. The committee "has a clear responsibility to investigate whether Mr. DeLay violated ethics rules in the course of his leadership of [two political action committees], both of which are the subject of the criminal indictments announced yesterday in Texas," the coalition said.
While House Democrats were reluctant to pile on DeLay publicly, they marched to the Capitol's west steps for a photogenic morning rally to announce their fall election agenda, dubbed a "new partnership for America's future." At a lectern, private citizens described problems such as the high cost of health insurance, followed by Democratic lawmakers who promised remedies such as "a real prescription drug benefit for seniors."
The agenda, printed on a six-page brochure, consisted of familiar and general goals: "military strength second to none," "safe communities free of crime and drugs" and so on.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) told reporters that Democrats were not trying to mimic the "Contract With America," which Republicans unveiled on the Capitol steps a decade ago, shortly before winning enough seats in the 1994 election to gain the House majority. "Not at all, because that was about dividing Americans," Pelosi said. "This is about who we are as a party."
The Republicans held their celebration of 10 years a few minutes later indoors, and spent nearly as much time ridiculing Democrats as they did touting the GOP record of tax cuts and other achievements. "Clearly, the Democrats' talking points were faxed to them from the Kinko's in Abilene, Texas," DeLay said, alluding to apparently forged memos that have plagued CBS News.
DeLay said Republicans want to keep pushing their agenda, including "passing sweeping lawsuit-abuse reform and universal regulatory reform to get predatory lawyers and busybody bureaucrats off small businesses' backs once and for all."
In a day of dueling news releases and biting remarks, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said: "It's stunning that House Republicans would waste one minute patting themselves on the back and prattling on about a 10-year-old public relations document rather than dealing with the problems that their policies have created: record budget deficits, exploding debt, the loss of 1.7 million private sector jobs, and 5 million more Americans without health insurance and 4 million more pushed into poverty."