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With DeLay in the Spotlight, Republicans Feeling the Heat

Times Staff Writers

This should be a time to savor for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

Republicans dominate Washington, a political achievement that DeLay -- with his hardball tactics, consummate fundraising skills and emphasis on party discipline -- played a key role in securing. And the conservative agenda the GOP is pushing reflects his passionate belief in lower taxes and less government regulation.

And yet, growing questions about his ethics and his associations have put DeLay on the defensive. He has been forced, most recently on Tuesday, to reassure jittery Republicans that he remains more of a political asset to them than a liability.

Democrats and congressional watchdog groups have seized on a steady drip of questions about DeLay’s actions, and those of some of his political associates, as evidence of what they say is a breakdown in ethics oversight in the Republican-controlled House. They have portrayed DeLay as being at the center of the decay in the system.

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Republicans acknowledge that they are feeling the heat.

“We all wish there were not news stories about Tom DeLay, but there are,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). “He is a tough character. Like him or not, everyone needs to recognize how tough and durable he is. I wouldn’t bet against him. But there’s no question that it’s something we all wish would go away, and over time, it probably will.”

DeLay is trying to keep to a business-as-usual schedule, insisting that the news stories and investigations are not diverting his focus.

But on Tuesday, he kept a room full of party faithful attending a conference on tax reform waiting nearly an hour so he could vote against an ethics measure put forward by the House Democratic leadership.

DeLay’s troubles began last year when three fundraisers with ties to him were indicted in Texas, charged with illegally using corporate contributions to fund Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature. A short time later, the House ethics committee rebuked him three times for political tactics members said went too far.

The scrutiny intensified when recent newspaper stories raised questions about two overseas trips DeLay took that were linked to a Washington lobbyist now under criminal investigation for his tactics in promoting Indian tribes’ gambling interests.

That DeLay remains -- for the time being -- secure in his position is testament to his success as a fundraiser and darling of the party’s conservative core. In his 20 years in the House, the onetime pest exterminator has built a broad and deep base in the Republican caucus.

Through his political action committee Americans for a Republican Majority, DeLay contributed more than $900,000 to more than 100 House Republican candidates in the last election cycle, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.

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Since 1994, the year Republicans won enough seats to take control of the House, DeLay’s organization has contributed about $4.2 million to Republican congressional and presidential candidates, the center said.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said House Republicans “are very grateful to Tom for his absolute dedication to this party and for having worked so hard to increase our majority.”

But Shays added that he and some others would counsel DeLay to not “go so close to the edge” in his political maneuvering and to work harder not to “give your enemies a reason to complain.”

And several GOP pollsters, consultants, leadership aides and others said that despite the goodwill DeLay had built within his party -- and the fear he had instilled in those who had crossed him and found themselves removed from positions of power -- the majority leader needed to change the subject, and soon.

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“Politicians and legislators by their very nature get nervous about controversy, even when they love the guy who is at the center of it,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, a political advocacy group. “And so, the longer it goes on, the more nervous they get.”

Keene said he “finds it hard to believe that [Delay] is in any real trouble,” because most House Republicans view the attacks on the majority leader as largely politically motivated.

That was a theme DeLay hit hard Tuesday during his weekly meeting with Capitol Hill reporters, where his controversies were the main topic of discussion.

“In recent years, there has been a growing frenzy surrounding the ethics committee, with Democrats and their allies attempting to use it as a partisan tool for partisan ends,” he said.

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“I see it for what it is. It is very unfortunate that the Democrats have no agenda. All they can do is try to tear down the House and burn it down in order to gain power.”

DeLay assailed a recent Washington Post story that raised questions about a trip he took to Britain in 2000 with his wife, two aides and two lobbyists. An Indian tribe and a gambling services company, clients of Jack Abramoff, a former top Republican fundraiser now under federal investigation for his dealings with Indian tribes, donated a total of $50,000 to the think tank that said it funded DeLay’s $70,000 trip.

Two months after the trip, DeLay helped kill legislation opposed by the tribe and a gambling services company.

DeLay said Tuesday the ethics clouds swirling about him were not distracting him.

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“Sure, I don’t like what I read,” he said. “At the same time, it doesn’t bother me. I stay focused on my job.”

Later in the day, DeLay bounded on stage to a blaring taped rendition of the pop song “Still the One,” at the GOP-sponsored gathering at the Washington Hilton. He pledged to continue leading the fight to overhaul Social Security, the legal system and the tax code.

Democrats, DeLay said, are “without power, without ideas, without leaders. Democrats have replaced statecraft with stagecraft. They have put style above substance, politics over people and partisanship over everything.”

The Republican small business operators from across the country applauded.

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Most of them were unaware that DeLay’s tardy arrival stemmed from his having to return to the House before making it to the hotel to vote against the measure by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) that sought to establish a bipartisan task force to make recommendations “to restore public confidence in the ethics process.”

The measure, defeated on largely party lines, did not mention DeLay by name. But it noted that actions -- such as a GOP-sponsored rule change approved earlier this year making it harder for the ethics committee to investigate lawmakers -- have been taken “to protect a member of the House.”

Shays said despite the measure’s defeat, some Republicans had qualms about the rule changes. “When you try to manipulate the rules to accommodate someone, anyone, that’s not helpful,” he said. “I think it is fair to say that there is a lot of concern that our leadership hasn’t handled this the way it should.”

Some Capitol Hill Republicans, who declined to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the upcoming spring recess, which begins Monday, could deepen DeLay’s troubles. If constituents raise concerns with the lawmakers about DeLay -- or if more stories emerge that raise fresh questions about his ethics -- he could face an erosion of support within the GOP, the politicians said.

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One senior House Republican voiced his concerns to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) chief of staff after seeing a front-page story on DeLay in one of his home-state newspapers Tuesday morning.

“The perception is that we’re not in control of the ethics process, that DeLay can do what he wants,” said the lawmaker. “It’s giving the party a bad name.... This thing is no different and has the same flavor and tone as when we knocked Jim Wright out.”

The lawmaker was referring to ethics charges, filed by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), that eventually led to the Texas Democrat’s resignation as House speaker in 1989. At the time, Gingrich argued that the Democrat’s long reign in the House had bred an environment of corruption.

DeLay’s current troubles could give Democrats a chance to emulate the Gingrich strategy, said Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who is now an official with the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist party group.

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“This is the Democrats’ opportunity to position themselves as the party of reform against a corrupt establishment,” Wittmann said.

Back home in Texas, where DeLay is seen as a political giant in his largely suburban district near Houston, there are suggestions of his political mortality.

This year, the first defendant in a lawsuit filed by five Democratic lawmakers after DeLay’s controversial push to draw Republican-friendly congressional district maps in Texas went to trial.

Despite protestations from DeLay allies that he was not a defendant in the trial, his name came up frequently. The case -- the first of several that will delve into the maneuvering and fundraising behind the new districts -- seemed to be as much about DeLay as about the GOP operative standing trial.

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Times staff writers Janet Hook in Washington and Scott Gold in Houston contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Questioned acts

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House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been credited with expanding his party’s majority in Congress in the last election, and for trying to build the GOP into a lasting majority party. But in furthering those goals, he has engaged in conduct that has raised ethics questions.

Sept. 21, 2004: Three political fundraisers with ties to DeLay are indicted by a Texas grand jury for allegedly funneling illegal corporate campaign funds to Republican candidates for state office. DeLay has not been charged and has called the indictments politically motivated.

Sept. 30, 2004: DeLay is admonished by the House ethics committee for offering in 2003 to support the son of then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to succeed his father in Congress if Smith changed his mind and voted for the Medicare drug benefit bill.

Oct. 6, 2004: The ethics committee rebukes DeLay for involving the Federal Aviation Administration in a Texas partisan matter -- tracking Democratic state legislators who fled the state on a private plane to avoid a vote on a DeLay-backed congressional redistricting plan -- and for staging a fundraising event in a way that appeared to link access to him with political donations.

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Nov. 17, 2004: House Republicans change a party rule to allow DeLay to remain majority leader if he is indicted. Under pressure, the GOP reverses course and instead changes another rule to make it easier to block congressional ethics investigations.

March 2005: Newspaper reports raise questions about two overseas trips by DeLay that were linked to a Washington lobbyist now under criminal investigation for his tactics in promoting Indian tribes’ gambling interests. DeLay has denied any wrongdoing.

Graphics reporting by Richard Simon

Los Angeles Times

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