House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, under fire for what critics describe as ethical lapses and political overreach, offered a rare apology Wednesday for “inartful” remarks criticizing federal judges.
DeLay, a Texas Republican who is the No. 2 official in the House, sparked a furor when he said the time would come for judges “to answer for their behavior” in the Terri Schiavo case. Some Democrats accused him of inciting violence against judges.
The controversy intensified the spotlight on DeLay, whose troubles have led Democrats -- and at least one Republican -- to call for him to step down as majority leader. A few Republicans have urged him to make a fuller accounting of his actions.
DeLay had responded to such calls combatively. But in striking a more conciliatory attitude on Wednesday, he fell more closely in line with recent remarks on the federal judiciary by President Bush and other party leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Though Republicans pushed for federal courts to intervene in the Schiavo case, most of them tempered their remarks after the courts refused to order a feeding tube reconnected to the brain-damaged Florida woman. In the wake of her death, Bush and Frist emphasized their support for an “independent judiciary.”
At a weekly meeting with reporters Wednesday, DeLay conceded that his rhetoric had been overheated when Schiavo died March 31.
“Sometimes I get a little more passionate, and particularly during the moment and the day that Terri Schiavo was starved to death, emotions were flowing,” DeLay said. “I said something in an inartful way and I shouldn’t have said it that way and I apologize for saying it that way.”
The day of Schiavo’s death, DeLay denounced federal judges who did not halt her death as “arrogant, out-of-control [and] unaccountable.” He also said, “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.”
On the ethics front, Delay has been facing questions about trips he took that were indirectly funded by lobbyists or foreign agents -- violations of House rules -- and the propriety of putting relatives on his campaign payroll.
Republicans say a crucial factor in whether DeLay rides out the storm is whether he retains the president’s support. DeLay was in group meetings with Bush twice on Wednesday.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said at his daily briefing that DeLay had the president’s “confidence,” but said little else.
McClellan said Bush planned to continue to work with DeLay and other congressional leaders “to get things done for the American people.”
In response to a reporter’s question, McClellan said Bush considered DeLay a friend. He declined to characterize the level of friendship.
“I think there are different levels of friendship with anybody,” McClellan said
The outcome of the Schiavo case angered many social conservatives who had come to view federal judges -- even those appointed by Republicans -- as often too “liberal” in their judgments. Those conservatives are a core constituency for Republicans, credited with helping the GOP attain and expand its majorities in Congress.
At a conference of religious conservative activists last week, DeLay continued his drumbeat against federal judges, saying that recent decisions “are not examples of a mature society, but of a judiciary run amok.”
“The response of the legislative branch has mostly been to complain,” DeLay continued, according to news reports. “There is another way, ladies and gentlemen, and that is to reassert our constitutional authority over the courts.”
Discussing those comments Wednesday, DeLay said, “I believe in an independent judiciary, just like I believe in an independent executive branch and an independent legislative branch.
“I also recognize, however, that Congress has constitutionally mandated oversight responsibilities over the judiciary, just like it has over the executive. And we would be shirking our constitutional obligations if we did not look at these issues as they come up.”
DeLay said that he had asked the House judiciary committee to investigate the Schiavo case and other instances of what he considered “judicial activism” and make recommendations for possible responses.
DeLay was elected majority leader by his fellow Republicans, who stood by him after he was rebuked three times last year by the House ethics committee for infractions involving strong-arm political tactics. Early this year, DeLay and other House GOP leaders ousted the committee’s chairman -- Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) -- and changed the panel’s rules to make it more difficult to initiate ethics investigations.
But in recent days, several Republicans for the first time publicly called for DeLay to respond to the recent ethical questions surrounding him. And one Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, broke ranks and called for DeLay to resign his leadership post.
“Tom’s conduct is hurting the Republican Party, is hurting this Republican majority, and it is hurting any Republican who is up for reelection,” Shays said Sunday.
A major part of DeLay’s survival strategy has been to try to deflect criticism as purely partisan while highlighting GOP legislative accomplishments. In his meeting with reporters, DeLay said questions about his ethics were part of a Democratic campaign against him.
“I’m not here to discuss the Democrats’ agenda,” DeLay said. “I’m here to discuss our agenda. Things are going on folks, believe it or not, and we are getting things done.”
Also Wednesday, the House ethics committee met privately for the first time since angry Democrats in mid-March refused to allow it to organize. Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) said then that Democrats could not accept rule changes adopted by the House, which he said would make it virtually impossible for the committee to investigate ethics complaints against members of Congress, such as DeLay.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Mollohan said, the committee voted down his motion asking that House Republican and Democratic leaders appoint a bipartisan task force to reconsider the rule changes.
Democrats sought Wednesday to link the controversies over DeLay to a possible effort by Senate Republicans to end filibusters for judicial nominations -- a tactic Democrats have used against 10 Bush appointees.
“If the Republicans don’t like the rules, change them, anywhere from what goes on with ethics to what goes on the floor of the United States Senate,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “We need responsible Republicans to rise up against the radical Republicans who are trying to change our institution.”
Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.