Widening corruption scandals in Washington are heightening Republican sentiments for a GOP leadership shake-up early next year that would permanently replace former majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), according to House members and GOP leadership sources.
Many Republicans say they are troubled that DeLay's political money-laundering trial in Texas could drag on for months, leaving the question of leadership in limbo. And they are increasingly anxious that DeLay may be implicated in the bribery and corruption investigations of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.). But with few members willing to publicly challenge DeLay's return, leadership aides still give the lawmaker a strong shot at a comeback, provided a Texas court exonerates him of charges that he illegally funneled corporate campaign contributions to state legislative candidates. Much will depend on whether DeLay can get the case thrown out or win acquittal by the time Congress convenes Jan. 30 for President Bush's State of the Union address, some GOP lawmakers and aides say.
"No question, there's considerable discontent in the conference about DeLay's return, but nobody's talking on the record," said a House Republican political strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of crossing DeLay, should he return. "If he beats this rap in Austin, he will be back as majority leader, because nobody's going to tell him no."
DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader in September immediately after his indictment. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) assumed the majority leader's post on a temporary basis. It is a measure of DeLay's lingering power on Capitol Hill that a dozen interviews on DeLay's future elicited almost no named responses -- either from DeLay allies or from lawmakers and congressional aides ready to see him replaced.
"There is a lot of sentiment out there about DeLay's radioactivity," said a leadership source close to DeLay and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
The issue of DeLay's future could come to a head as soon as Tuesday, when Texas District Court Judge Pat Priest said he will rule on a motion by DeLay's lawyers to dismiss the conspiracy and money-laundering charges. If Priest dismisses the case, DeLay will immediately inform Hastert and House Republican Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) that he intends to reclaim his title as majority leader, DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said.
At that point, "it's our understanding he would be majority leader again," Madden said.
The only thing that could derail DeLay is the signatures of 50 House Republicans calling for a leadership election. For now, such a petition could attract at most 20 to 30 signatures, a close DeLay associate said.
If the charges are not dismissed, DeLay's lead lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, will simultaneously press to have the case moved out of Austin, a Democratic bastion in Texas, to a venue with a more sympathetic jury pool, and for a speedy trial that would begin in early January. DeGuerin said any trial should be over in two weeks. That would yield a verdict well before enough House members convene to mobilize a drive for leadership elections.
But he also conceded that Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, could drag out the court fight with lengthy pretrial and discovery motions. That would put DeLay's leadership future in jeopardy, as members return to Washington next year to find Blunt continuing to serve as majority leader.
DeLay's legal problems could well extend beyond the Austin case. Former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon pleaded guilty to bribery charges Nov. 21, agreeing to cooperate in the widening investigation of his business associate, Abramoff. Six days later, Cunningham pleaded guilty to pocketing $2.4 million in bribes, also promising to help prosecutors.
DeLay aides say neither investigation has directly targeted the former majority leader. But Abramoff's interactions with DeLay and his staff -- including lavish trips to the Northern Mariana Islands and the famed golf course of St. Andrews, Scotland -- has created considerable trepidation among rank-and-file lawmakers, House members and GOP aides say.
In addition, DeLay was ferried three times in 2003 and 2004 on corporate jets owned by the company of Brent Wilkes, a California defense contractor who allegedly made illicit payments to Cunningham in exchange for legislative favors. Neither DeLay nor the company has disclosed the purpose or destination of the trips, which were billed to one of DeLay's PACs at a commercial flight rate as permitted under election law.
"The Scanlon thing, the Cunningham thing, I think you have more people waiting for the other shoe to drop," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Justice Department investigators are trying to link campaign contributions to official legislative actions. Nobody knows how wide a net the investigators will cast, a DeLay adviser conceded. Such charges of quid pro quo are extremely difficult to prove but very easy to level, in light of the large amounts of lobbyist money sloshing around Capitol Hill.
Even if DeLay is never implicated, his return to the majority leader's post would create political "havoc," said one Republican House member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The lawmaker pointed to DeLay's decision in October to fly to Texas ahead of his first courtroom appearance aboard a corporate jet owned by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
"The fact that he flew down on a corporate jet for his mug shot, and not just any corporate jet but Big Tobacco's corporate jet, that's a double whammy," the lawmaker said. "A number of my colleagues say he just doesn't get it. He doesn't understand how this plays."