A Texas judge's decision to let stand a felony indictment against former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has emboldened the congressman's opponents and raised the likelihood that one of the architects of the House GOP's rise to power will not be returning to the leadership, lawmakers said yesterday.
Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) sought to reassure members that DeLay will return to prominence, telling reporters he still believes DeLay will beat the charges before an election to replace him is necessary. If an end to DeLay's case is in sight next month, members will not petition for a leadership shake-up.
But yesterday opponents who have remained largely anonymous began to speak out.
"If it becomes clear in January that the trial is not going to start for several more months, I think there will be a call from members to hold elections," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "We can't simply muddle along with this interim arrangement and think we can accomplish the major things we want to accomplish. And we need to get this off the front pages of the newspapers for those members in close districts."
He added, "It's pretty clear it's not going to be resolved in January."
Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) released a statement demanding that leadership elections be conducted as soon as possible: "The House Republican Conference should now elect a permanent leadership structure for 2006, so that we can move forward with a positive agenda that focuses on issues, not personalities."
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a longtime critic of DeLay's ethical practices, lit into the Republican leadership as a whole: "Ethical leadership is the foundation of trust with our constituents, and my leadership is not hearing that."
DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said that lawmakers are "entitled to their opinion," but that the judge's decision to throw out the original conspiracy charge against DeLay proved the congressman is the victim of a partisan prosecutor. "It's been very clear that there's a lot of support for Mr. DeLay to fight these charges," Madden said.
The likelihood of a showdown next month over DeLay's political future seemed to increase as House Republicans returned from a two-week break and assessed the damage from the mushrooming scandals. During their absence, former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon pleaded guilty to bribery charges and promised to cooperate with a federal corruption investigation. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) tearfully confessed to accepting millions of dollars in bribes from defense contractors with ties to several other lawmakers, including DeLay.
On Monday, a Texas judge dismissed a conspiracy charge against DeLay but upheld felony charges stemming from alleged money laundering in connection with the 2002 Texas election.
DeLay aides and leadership officials continue to say the congressman has the calendar on his side. House leaders intend to adjourn for the year by Dec. 20. Lawmakers are expected to return at the end of January for President Bush's State of the Union address, then probably will return to their districts until mid-February. With so much time away from Washington, opponents will have little time to organize the 50 signatures necessary to move for a shake-up, and at the moment there are no more than 30 willing to publicly call for DeLay's replacement.
Meanwhile, DeLay's lawyers will move to have the remaining indictment tossed out on grounds of misconduct by Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. If that fails, they will press for a court date early next month that probably would produce a verdict within two weeks.
But by January, opposition to DeLay's return is likely to become more public, LaHood said, as other investigations move closer to the former majority leader, especially that of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Scanlon, his business associate.
"Scanlon, I'm sure, is singing like a canary," LaHood said.
Democrats are pushing legislation to curtail the influence of lobbyists on Capitol Hill, and soon Republicans will feel pressure to join that movement, LaHood and Shays said.
"January will be a time when people talk about new leaders and talk about some reforms to get us back to the party that we were when we were elected to a majority," LaHood said. "I think in January you'll see a lot of courageous people around here. I really do."
Already, GOP leaders are scrambling to distance themselves from the rash of corruption investigations, while circling around the leadership structure. Last night, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), who has often been named as a possible challenger in a majority leader's race, said he would not be leaving his post as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) rushed out a note of thanks.
"If there were to be a leadership race, Tom Reynolds would be considered a very serious contender," Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said. "However, he has chosen to be a team player, and the speaker greatly appreciates that."
Meanwhile, Blunt, Hastert and House Republican Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) released statements yesterday denouncing Cunningham's behavior, upon formal receipt of his resignation letter.
"Today is a sad day for the U.S. House of Representatives and Duke Cunningham. How a decorated war veteran sank to the level of bribery and corruption is a personal and public tragedy," said Pryce, deploring what she called "an isolated event."