After enlarging their majority in the past two elections, House Republicans have begun to fear that public attention to members' travel and relations with lobbyists will make ethics a potent issue that could cost the party seats in next year's midterm races.
In what Republican strategists call "the DeLay effect," questions plaguing House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) are starting to hurt his fellow party members, who are facing news coverage of their own trips and use of relatives on their campaign payrolls. Liberal interest groups have begun running advertising in districts where Republicans may be in trouble, trying to tie the incumbents to their leaders' troubles.
Among those endangered are at least two committee chairmen and several other senior members. Congressional districts that traditionally have been safe for Republicans could become more competitive, according to party officials.
Nowhere is the impact of the ethics issue clearer than here in the Appalachian hills of eastern Ohio, where a thicket of weekly newspapers now gives regular coverage to revelations about House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and his ties to DeLay and Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist now under criminal and congressional investigation for the tens of millions of dollars in fees he and a partner collected from casino-owning Indian tribes.
Ney is known as "the mayor of Capitol Hill," where his committee controls perks that include BlackBerrys, modular furniture and parking spaces. He is a conservative who has thrived in a blue-collar Democratic district, through gestures such as personally giving tours of the Capitol to 5,000 constituents' children each spring. With his warm relations with other lawmakers in both parties and his mastery of the nooks and crannies of the institution, he has been considered a strong contender to move up the House leadership ladder.
Now, all of that is in jeopardy. Ney, 51, has hired a criminal lawyer and is preparing for a grueling inquiry by the House ethics committee. His name also appears frequently in e-mails being studied by investigators at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is looking into lobbyists' dealings with gambling-enriched tribes.
Democrats are using allegations about influence peddling to recruit opponents for several of the chamber's most senior Republicans. DeLay, who just a few years ago seemed invulnerable, now is certain to face a heavily funded Democratic challenge. Former four-term representative Nick Lampson, who lost in November after a redistricting engineered by DeLay, has filed as a candidate in DeLay's suburban Houston district.
House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), a rancher who granted leave to his committee staff of about 40 for the 15 days before the November election and has been questioned about his use of taxpayer funds on fliers favorable to President Bush, was the target of radio ads by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee over Memorial Day and could face a challenge from Democratic state Sen. Michael Machado.
Another Republican in the Democrats' sights is Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.), who as a state official was an aggressive advocate for Bush during the presidential election recount fight of 2000, and has been a key DeLay supporter. Like DeLay, Feeney accepted a trip to South Korea from a group that later declared itself a foreign agent, which would have made the group ineligible to fund trips for lawmakers. Like DeLay, Feeney traveled to Scotland and played golf, accompanied by Abramoff.
Democrats also are going after Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), one of the wealthiest House members, who has battled legal and ethical questions in past campaigns. Republicans hold a 29-seat edge over Democrats in the House (with one vacancy and one independent).
The parties have been so aggressive about redrawing congressional lines to protect incumbents that few seats are in play in any given election. That has made party strategists doubtful that Democrats could retake control until at least 2012, after lines are redrawn following the next census. But Republican officials who had said earlier this year that they would break even in the midterm elections are now talking about possibly losing seats.
Democrats said they plan to capitalize on the junkets issue the same way Republicans leveraged the House bank check-bouncing scandal when they won control of Congress in 1994: as a vivid symbol, understandable to the average voter, of a majority party that has lost touch with voters. A series of polls in the past two months has shown broad dissatisfaction with Congress in general and the Republican leadership in particular, causing the party's strategists to fret that conditions are ripe for change.
Across the country, lawmakers are being peppered with unwelcome questions from news organizations that are digging into the travel records of their own congressional delegations.
"Join Congress, See the World," stated a front-page report in the Chicago Tribune. "There's no locale too exotic or destination too far for Illinois' delegation to visit in service of its constituents." The Times-Picayune of New Orleans cracked on its front page, "State's politicos like to travel -- And they like other people to pay for it." The front page of the May 29 Hartford Courant trumpeted, "Public Trips, Private Funding -- State Delegation Frequent Travelers."
Rick Davis, a Republican strategist who was presidential campaign manager for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said the ethics issue is putting the party "into a bit of troublesome water."
"The combination of gridlock and ethics charges indicate that the system's busted, and the system is the majority party," Davis said. "The contest for us in the bi-election is to explain what we've gotten accomplished in the last two years, and right now, it's not looking so hot. The focus is on the problems, because there isn't that much happening. We need some successes."
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who has said DeLay should step down, said the allegation that House members abused travel privileges "is a big issue" that will make the party's job a lot harder in the upcoming elections.
"At community meetings, some of the most conservative of my constituents are asking, 'What's going on down there?' " Shays said.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that although a particular member's conduct matters only in that person's specific race, the Democrats plan to make "an overarching theme" of the influence that special interests have gained over the legislative process. Republicans are responding with what they call a "muddy-the-water strategy," in which they encourage news coverage about Democrats' ties to Abramoff, and about Democratic travel that was coordinated with lobbyists.
In the strip malls and along the Cumberland Road where Model T's once caravanned west, Ney's constituents said that they have been shocked by the revelations and that they are starting to wonder whether he is really who they thought he was. Joseph E. Wagner, 60, a Republican and owner of a sports club, has always voted for Ney and recently shook the congressman's hand at a National Rifle Association banquet. But now he is disappointed.
"I'm beginning to think they just ought to bomb every politician out there," Wagner said over a scrambled-egg breakfast at the TeeJay's diner in Zanesville, in the Ohio Valley west of Pittsburgh. "He's just gotten completely out of control. He just got involved with the wrong people."
Ney, in a recent interview, said he has not "stayed in a bunker" throughout the controversy and that he is so busy he does not "have a lot of time to sit and worry." Using the same strategy as DeLay, Ney answers inquiries about specific allegations by saying that he will save his explaining for the House ethics committee.
"Anything questioned is in the package, and that package needs to go to the ethics committee to be discussed," he said. "I feel confident, whenever we can get this into the ethics committee, I can explain my side of it. There'll be hopefully a level there where they'll look at how we function and upon what we thought. I feel good about myself on that."
Asked about his relationship with DeLay, Ney said, "I'm a speaker's guy."
Ney was elected to Congress in 1994, the year of the anti-incumbent revolution. His opponent was Greg L. DiDonato, a Democratic state representative. DiDonato, now a lobbyist, is thinking of seeking a rematch.