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House GOP Alters Its Rules to Shield Combative DeLay

Times Staff Writer

House Republicans changed a party rule Wednesday to allow Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas to remain as majority leader even if indicted in an investigation of campaign finance violations in his home state.

The new rule, approved in a closed-door meeting, represented the first significant action taken by emboldened Republicans since they increased their House majority in the Nov. 2 elections.

The lawmakers defended the change as necessary to shield DeLay from what they said was a politically inspired investigation designed to weaken one of Washington’s most powerful Republicans. Democrats, downcast since their election losses, delighted in accusing Republicans of an ethical retreat.

A Texas grand jury has indicted three fundraisers with ties to DeLay on charges of illegally funneling corporate contributions to GOP candidates for state office. DeLay has said that he has not been questioned in the investigation, which is being led by the Democratic district attorney in Travis County.

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Dist. Atty. Ronald Earle said in a statement from his Austin office Wednesday that the rule change would have no effect on the investigation. “But it should be alarming to the public to see their leaders substitute their judgment for that of the law enforcement process,” he said.

DeLay did not address the change during the meeting of more than 200 House Republicans, participants said. But he told reporters later that it was necessary to prevent Democrats from using the Republican Party’s rules against Republicans.

“The Democrats have decided that they’re going to use the politics of personal destruction to gain power,” DeLay said. “What we are doing is protecting ourselves from those assaults.”

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), one of the few Republicans who spoke out publicly against the new rule, said: “For the life of me, I don’t know why we’re doing this now.”

Shays said it was wrong to change the decade-old rule, which was put in place to show that Republicans could live by a “higher standard than our Democratic colleagues.”

The 1993 rule required indicted Republican leaders to relinquish their positions. The new rule gives the 28-member Republican Steering Committee, led by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, 30 days after an indictment of a party leader or committee chairman to recommend “what action, if any,” the party’s rank and file should take.

DeLay said the steering committee would determine whether the indictment was “politically motivated.” The Republican rank and file, formally known as the House Republican Conference, could then decide whether the leader should step down.

“It’s not up to some Democrat district attorney in Austin, Texas, to make that decision,” DeLay said. “It’s up to this conference to make that decision.”

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A House Republican aide, defending the change, said: “The rule we had before today essentially said, ‘You’re guilty until proven innocent.’ ”

DeLay, who was reelected as the House’s No. 2 leader Tuesday, is popular among his colleagues for helping the party strengthen its majority status. He oversaw the drawing of a new House district map in Texas that led to the election of five more Republicans.

He will play a key role in the new Congress in advancing President Bush’s legislative agenda.

“Tom DeLay stands up, week in, week out, takes a bullet square in the chest for us on the issues that we fight for and that he fights for on behalf of us,” a House GOP aide said. “So there is a sense of loyalty and gratitude among the conference.”

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DeLay has been rebuked twice this fall by the House Ethics Committee for his hard-nosed political tactics.

He was admonished for involving a federal agency in a Texas partisan matter and staging a fundraiser in a way that appeared to link access to the congressman with political donations. He also was criticized for saying he would support a congressman’s son to succeed his father if the congressman voted for the bill adding a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), among those criticizing the rules change, said, “Clearly, the Republicans do not care about the integrity of their party or the poor example they set for the nation.”

Republicans countered that House Democrats had no rule requiring top leaders to give up their positions if indicted. A Pelosi spokeswoman said Democrats planned to adopt a rule similar to the one repealed by Republicans on Wednesday.

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Common Cause, a Washington political watchdog group, called the rules change “shameless.”

But Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) defended it as taking power away from “any partisan crackpot district attorney” who might want to force a House GOP leader to give up a leadership position.

As evidence that he had nothing to do with the change, DeLay joked, “That’s why it took hours to do.”


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