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DeLay Fires Up GOP Troops for Counterattack

Times Staff Writer

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has launched a characteristically defiant response to attacks on his ethics and leadership, even as the controversy threatens to compete with the Republican legislative agenda when Congress returns this week from spring recess.

As criticism of the 57-year-old Texan intensified last week with a blast from the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board and the unveiling of an anti-DeLay television ad campaign by nonprofit groups, he began a counterattack designed to shore up his backing in the Republican House caucus and among social conservatives.

In a meeting with the heads of several social conservative organizations, DeLay sought support in a fight that he said was aimed at ending the GOP majority in Congress and thwarting the social conservative movement. Some responded immediately.

“The only fire behind all that smoke generated by the leftist attacks is their burning hatred of a good man,” wrote Morton C. Blackwell, a prominent conservative, in a posting on the American Conservative Union’s website. “You and I must do all we can to make sure any politician who hopes to have conservative support ... had better be in the forefront as we attack those who attack Tom DeLay.”

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Democrats are promising to quickly bring up ethical questions surrounding DeLay when Congress returns to work Monday. And the concern among some Republicans is that DeLay may step into a political trap by fiercely responding.

Democrats, Republicans say, are determined to further raise DeLay’s national political profile. And DeLay is not the sort of politician to seek to lower his profile in the face of conflict.

“He draws energy from these fights,” said one GOP strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He sees this in terms of good and evil: He is all good and his opponents are all evil.”

Until now, one House Republican leadership aide said, DeLay’s problems have not been serious enough to distract the caucus from its efforts to push forward President Bush’s legislative agenda.

“But it could very possibly become a distraction” in the coming week, said the aide, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

On Thursday, DeLay underscored his role as one of the social movement’s more prominent political leaders, issuing a hard-edged reaction to the death of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband won a long court battle to have her feeding tube removed.

DeLay, who had led the fight in Congress to pass legislation designed to force Schiavo’s case into the federal courts, warned that “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior,” a reference to what social conservatives saw as the failure of the judicial system to save Schiavo.

Later, at a news conference in his Texas district, DeLay said that Schiavo’s death would “not be in vain,” and that “we will look at an arrogant, out of control, unaccountable judiciary that have thumbed their nose at the Congress and the president.”

The first face-off between DeLay and Democrats is likely to come over the House ethics committee, in a fight that is seen as closely tied to DeLay’s ethical woes.

In March, the committee’s Democrats announced that they would not participate in its activities until the House repealed new rules written by the Republican leadership that the Democrats said made it virtually impossible to initiate and carry out investigations.

The Republicans responded that they had no intention of repealing rules. Democrats are threatening to use a parliamentary procedure to bring a bill to the floor that would force a revote on the rules.

“The best result here for the ethics committee is to get this done, to get these rules considered on the House floor, and to get them changed,” said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee.

DeLay is likely to remain an irresistible target for Democrats through the spring session, at a time when the White House is working to focus attention on its fight for restructuring Social Security.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a DeLay ally, said Democrats would continue to “flail” at DeLay because they had few options as the minority party in the House.

“What else would you do, other than gnaw on DeLay’s ankles?” he asked. “The other team is going to keep talking about it.”

And DeLay, he said, would continue to “point out to people what is at stake here. This is a political fight.”

DeLay’s troubles began last year, when the ethics committee -- the only House panel divided equally between Republicans and Democrats -- admonished him three times for using strong-arm political tactics.

The rebukes were unanimous, but DeLay said they were politically motivated.

The House leadership subsequently removed Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) as the committee’s chairman, installed three new Republican members -- including two who have donated to DeLay’s legal defense fund -- and rewrote the committee’s rules.

In Texas, three DeLay aides are on trial on charges of campaign-finance violations related to corporate donations to a DeLay political action committee that funneled money to Republican candidates for the state Legislature.

DeLay also has been on the defensive about his relationship with Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who was close to DeLay and is under investigation by a federal grand jury on suspicion of fraud and public corruption related to his representation of Indian gaming interests.

Investigations are pending before the ethics committee about trips DeLay took to South Korea and Britain that may have been improperly paid for, in one instance by Abramoff and in another by an entity registered as a foreign agent. DeLay has denied that he did anything wrong.

Republican strategists say that so far, nothing has emerged that is likely to mortally wound the pugnacious leader.

“Ethics has become partisan politics with just another name, and I think most people recognize it as such,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “Ethics has nothing to do with right and wrong anymore in a political contest: It has become simply another way to gig your opponent.”

Still, there are signs that the clouds surrounding DeLay are beginning to worry some in the Republican mainstream.

A new poll by the National Journal magazine of GOP insiders -- dozens of veteran campaign strategists -- found a split opinion on whether DeLay was an asset or liability to the party. Twenty rated him either a major or minor asset, but 21 termed him either a major or minor liability.

The Wall Street Journal editorial also resonated within Republican circles.

“By now you have surely read about House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s ethics troubles,” the editorial began. The trouble for DeLay and for the party, the Journal opined, is “that Mr. DeLay has an ‘odor’: nothing too incriminating, nothing actually criminal, just an unsavory whiff that could have GOP loyalists reaching for the political Glade if it gets any worse.”

Among DeLay’s critics, the Campaign for America’s Future, a nonprofit group funded by labor and civil rights leaders, is spending $75,000 on a cable television ad running in Washington and in his congressional district. The ad alleges that he used the dispute between Schiavo’s husband and her parents to distract attention from his ethics issues.

“Tom DeLay can’t wash his hands of corruption by involving Congress in one family’s tragedy,” the ad’s narrator says.

The Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonprofit funded in part by billionaire George Soros, is spending $25,000 to sponsor an online petition drive that calls for DeLay to resign.

The group also is buying television ads in the districts of a few key Republicans, calling on them to demand DeLay’s resignation.


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