For the first time in more than a decade, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) arrived at work yesterday without a leadership title attached to his name. Sidelined from his post as majority leader by a criminal indictment in Texas, the man who accumulated extraordinary power on his way up the ladder faces a difficult and uncertain road back to those heights.
The money-laundering indictment back home represents just one of the obstacles DeLay must overcome before he can seek restoration as a member of the House GOP leadership. The other obstacles include a possible House ethics investigation; the scandal involving well-connected GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which has touched former DeLay staff members; and a 2006 reelection campaign that would have been difficult even without the indictment.
Even if he is able to beat the indictment in Texas and avoid other potential problems, there is no guarantee that his colleagues will want him back. At some point, they may decide that it is in their interest politically to move beyond the DeLay era, regardless of the status of his legal situation.
With post-DeLay leadership fights already in the offing and with growing concern about a deteriorating political climate that has less to do with DeLay than with Iraq, gasoline prices and President Bush's problems, House Republicans may find themselves torn between personal admiration for DeLay and a cold-eyed judgment of what is best for the party. "They've already turned the page," a GOP strategist said yesterday.
DeLay has chosen to fight his indictment the way he has waged most of his battles, with certitude in his cause and public expressions of confidence and resolve. If his lawyers have advised DeLay not to talk about the case, he has ignored their counsel, giving interviews on television with the frequency of someone who has just won an election rather than one who has just received legal papers.
In an interview yesterday on CNN, DeLay again denounced Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle as a vicious partisan and said that his lawyers are demanding an early trial under Texas law. Under that scenario, DeLay said, the case could be resolved by the end of the year.
Speaking of Earle, he said: "He made sure I was indicted because he knew I had to step aside as majority leader. And that is what's going on here. It is a political witch hunt, trying to do political damage. . . . In my case, he did it in conjunction and working with the Democratic leadership here in Washington, D.C."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called DeLay's charge "completely false."
DeLay also said he had no day-to-day control over the activities of Texans for a Republican Majority, the political action committee that is at the heart of the indictment, but he insisted that all actions taken by PAC officials were legal. "They did a legal transaction that's done by Democrats and Republicans," he said.
That tenacity has impressed some of his colleagues, who say perceptions that Earle is on a partisan vendetta have created a reservoir of sympathy and support for DeLay that could be crucial to his hopes of coming back to power. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said that, even as a temporary backbencher, DeLay will wield significant influence both with the leadership and with other members.
"He's a very powerful and effective force inside the Republican conference, and at this stage, the sympathy and support for him is so strong that he is going to be exceptionally effective if he picks his shots," Cole said.
"Tom and I disagree on a lot of issues," said another House Republican who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But I've always admired his bull-dogged determination to get things done. He has a lot of admirers in the conference who admire his ability to get things done, like I do, but also who agree with him. So there is a distinct possibility that he could come back."
But Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution said the political conditions may never be right for DeLay's return, even if he wins his case in Texas. "I just think it's very unlikely," he said.
DeLay may continue to wield influence in the House even in the absence of his leadership position. But House members and GOP strategists said DeLay must avoid appearing to be continuing to run the House from the sidelines, lest the rule requiring that he step aside would appear to be a sham.
Meanwhile, the unfolding federal fraud and public corruption investigation into Abramoff's dealings with Indian tribes, Congress and federal agencies is a potentially significant problem for DeLay and the GOP.
Abramoff helped DeLay and conservative Republicans who took control of Congress in the 1990s channel millions of dollars in campaign contributions from traditionally Democratic-leaning K Street lobbyists. Among the well-connected congressional staffers Abramoff hired to lobby with him were several DeLay aides, notably press aide Michael Scanlon, a central figure in the investigation who sources close to the probe have said has been in discussions with prosecutors.
DeLay, who once described Abramoff as a good friend, traveled with an entourage of aides and family members to St. Andrews, Scotland, in 2000 for a luxury golf outing arranged by Abramoff and paid for by two of the lobbyist's clients. DeLay was Abramoff's guest at skyboxes Abramoff maintained at MCI Center and the Redskins' FedEx Field, and his staff members were flown to a Super Bowl game in Florida and to the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach, Calif.
The House ethics committee admonished DeLay three times in the past. And its former chairman was dumped after clashing with DeLay. The committee is still mired in internal disputes, but Democrats and Republicans said yesterday that the committee will probably have to address the DeLay issue next year.
Beyond that, DeLay must win reelection. Last November, he won with 55 percent of the vote, a relatively unimpressive showing for a veteran House leader. As part of a Texas redistricting that DeLay engineered and that led to Republicans gaining five seats in that state, DeLay's district lost some GOP voters. What had been considered a potentially tough campaign became even more difficult with Wednesday's indictment.
Some Republicans were already speaking of DeLay's accomplishments in the past tense yesterday, noting that, whatever happens, he will be remembered as one of the most important architects of modern conservatism. Others said that, however long the odds facing DeLay, they would never rule out the return to power of a politician of such focus, energy, determination and iron will. "Nobody ever got rich writing DeLay's obituary," said former DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy.