Former House majority leader Tom DeLay's efforts to retain power despite his indictment have angered some rank-and-file Republicans, many of whom say his ethical problems and uncertain status are staining them and destabilizing GOP unity.
Although he was forced to relinquish his leadership post Sept. 28, after the first of two indictments for alleged involvement in money laundering related to the 2002 Texas election, DeLay continues to use an office in the leadership suite, occasionally presides over private meetings with committee chairmen and lobbies members during key floor votes.
Also, the Texas Republican's staff continues to maintain the House schedule and dash off memos to lawmakers, ostensibly as employees of a majority leader's office without a full-fledged majority leader. And on his trips to the sheriff's office for an Oct. 20 booking in Houston and a court appearance in Austin on Oct. 21, DeLay was accompanied by three bodyguards from the Capitol Hill police force, just as he was when he was majority leader.
"My issue is having an indicted former leader hanging around the leadership offices," said one House Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of DeLay's remaining authority. "This guy did so much good work getting us into the majority. Why does he want to stick around? He's not helping us."
"Tom DeLay should not be in a position of authority," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who called for DeLay's resignation from the House leadership even before he was indicted. "He should not be calling the shots or driving the agenda, and if he is, that would be unfortunate."
Countering those are DeLay's ardent House supporters, dozens of whom now sport hammer-shaped lapel pins evoking DeLay's nickname, "The Hammer," to proclaim their allegiance. They say much of the discord is due to DeLay's departure from the leadership, not his continuing influence.
"This can't go on this way indefinitely," said Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), a leader of House Republican moderates who wants an election in January to fill DeLay's slot. "We need to get this leadership issue behind us."
A series of faction meetings and private discussions last week could culminate in a face-off today, when House Republicans gather for a half-day retreat at the Library of Congress to air their grievances. DeLay appeared in court in Texas yesterday as his legal team succeeded in getting the presiding judge replaced in the case alleging fundraising improprieties. He planned to fly back last night for the conference today.
The indictment Friday of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has heightened concerns among some Republican lawmakers that they are approaching the 2006 midterm election under an ethical cloud. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the Republican Party is viewed favorably by 42 percent of the population, while 49 percent view the GOP unfavorably, an imbalance not seen since the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
And some House members say they are bracing for Democratic mailings to their constituents with the mug shots of DeLay, Libby and former White House procurement chief David Safavian. Moreover, White House adviser Karl Rove remains under investigation by the special counsel probing the CIA leak.
"Ethics is everything," Shays said. "If you don't have a strong moral standing, if you don't have an ethical foundation, you just crumble."
DeLay's presence at a series of delicate talks on budget cutting last month with committee chairmen left some senior lawmakers dumbfounded, confused and even angry that a demand as sensitive as billions of dollars in spending cuts would come from a member without a leadership post or even a senior committee position.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has temporarily assumed the post of majority leader. But with DeLay actively engaged in leadership business, the chain of command is confusing at best.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other leaders remain publicly in DeLay's camp. House Republican Vice Chairman Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) distributed a glossy "member profile" of DeLay last week, gushing about DeLay's role in foster parenting, his run-in with an errant quail hunter, his love of jazz and his affections for his bichons frises, Baily and Taylor, and his miniature dachshund, Scooter.
"The 'Hammer' Has a Big Heart," read the headline.
Most importantly, DeLay remains intimately involved in setting legislative strategy, especially as the House drives to cut federal spending to help pay for a surge of hurricane relief. And he has continued his well-honed practice of rounding up votes on controversial measures that otherwise might not win House approval.
DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said DeLay has maintained those roles at the request of Hastert and other House leaders -- with the blessing of most rank-and-file members.
"It's not lost on anybody that Mr. DeLay has a unique understanding of the issues and a record of success," Madden said. "He's going to continue to play a role as long as members encourage him to do so."
With difficult votes coming, especially on a massive budget bill cutting $50 billion in spending over five years and a $70 billion tax cut to follow, some Republicans say DeLay needs more authority, not less.
"DeLay knows how to get votes; he knows how to work the floor; he knows how to talk to chairmen, because he's been doing it for years," said one House leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because internal leadership matters are considered confidential. "I know some members have concerns, but the flip side is, if he wasn't involved and we ran into problems, people would say: 'Well, DeLay knows how to get things done. Why isn't he being used?' "
Regardless of how members feel about DeLay, Republicans across the ideological spectrum say the current unstable structure of the leadership is inviting discord. DeLay has asked Republicans to leave his post vacant until the charges against him are resolved, and supporters say the case could be tossed out or beaten by January.
But for now, the majority leader's office is "a staff without a head," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.).
"Who's responsible for what? Who do you call if you have a problem?" Bass asked.
Already, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) has said he would like to run for a leadership post. Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, an increasingly influential faction of fiscal conservatives, has signaled to members that he is exploring a run. And many expect Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), a leadership member since the 1994 Republican House takeover, to make a bid.
All that has helped fragment the House Republican Conference as members jostle for advantage.
"There's a power vacuum," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "If we don't get some unity and sense of purpose soon, people will start looking after themselves."
DeLay has tried to shore up his position by lining up with conservatives, especially on the drive for budget cuts, where he once played the role of conciliator. And that has created other problems, as the Republican Study Committee gains power at the expense of other factions.
"You can't have a part of the conference wagging the whole body," Davis said. "The conservatives say it's all about keeping the party base, keeping the party base. But you hold the majority by holding your marginal districts."