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GOP Loses a Powerful Enforcer

Times Staff Writers

The indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) undercuts one of President Bush’s most powerful allies at a time when the GOP is already battered by other ethics controversies, plummeting public confidence and intraparty divisions over budget policy.

The departure from the leadership ranks of DeLay, a commanding figure in the House’s machinery for enforcing party discipline, could hamper Republicans’ ability to advance political and legislative agendas.

The indictment is the latest in a series of developments that have put the GOP on the defensive, among them the Bush administration’s halting initial response to Hurricane Katrina, soaring gas prices and continuing violence in Iraq. It comes less than a week after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) acknowledged he was under investigation for a stock sale, giving new ammunition for Democrats who seek to call attention to alleged ethical lapses to bolster an argument that Republicans have abused power in Congress and the White House.

“It’s hard to spin this as anything other than another problem dropped on the pile of troubles our side faces now,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. “Bad news tends to come in bunches, and we’ve had a bunch lately.”

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“People are upset,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio). “It’s not a good day for the home team.”

Still, Republican colleagues rallied around DeLay and embraced his view that the indictment -- by a Texas grand jury on a charge of violating state campaign finance laws -- was politically motivated.

“This is the first day of a war,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “This was a cheap shot against Tom DeLay, and he was indicted because he was majority leader. If we abandon Tom DeLay, we’re abandoning ourselves.”

Some Democrats tried to restrain their glee at the legal troubles of a GOP leader they had demonized. “Don’t write that I’m smiling,” said one House Democrat on learning the news.

Others immediately linked DeLay’s problems to Frist’s, as well as to the investigation of Bush advisor Karl Rove in connection with the disclosure of a CIA operative’s identity.

“The Republican leadership in Washington is now spending more time answering questions about ethical misconduct than doing the people’s business,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

House Republican leaders said their legislative agenda would not be disrupted by the loss of DeLay as majority leader. The removal was required under House Republican rules that prohibit leaders from serving if they are indicted. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) moved quickly to replace DeLay, choosing Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) as acting leader. Reps. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are to assist Blunt.

Republicans predicted DeLay would be exonerated, but his indictment may set off behind-the-scenes jockeying to succeed him -- and leadership struggles often weaken party unity. Among those thought to be interested in the post are Blunt; Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee; and John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

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But it will be hard to fill DeLay’s shoes, because he is more than a powerful congressional leader. He helped build a new political machine in Washington, one that leveraged the influence of large corporations and trade associations and created pathways for them to contribute to the party.

Starting with the election of a Republican congressional majority in 1994, DeLay was among the most outspoken in demanding corporate support for the party, not only for fundraising but in choosing Republicans to fill jobs at lobbying firms and trade associations. Two dozen former DeLay staffers now have prominent positions as lobbyists around Washington. DeLay’s aggressive rhetoric -- sometimes issued directly to powerful CEOs -- helped cement a close relationship between business and the party.

DeLay is also renowned for his skill in enforcing the party line on key votes. He twisted arms so aggressively to help pass a Medicare bill in 2003 that he was rebuked by the House Ethics Committee and told to temper his actions in the future.

Even his admirers said he had tempted fate with his hardball political tactics. “Tom skates right up to the line,” said one GOP lobbyist who works closely with the congressional leadership and who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “If you play on that edge, you make yourself the test case.”

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DeLay has been a prolific fundraiser for the party and for other members of Congress, which has won him deep loyalty among his colleagues. That has helped him weather controversies, including three admonitions from the House Ethics Committee.

DeLay’s broadest political ambition, which he shares with Bush and Rove, is to build the party’s majority in Congress and the country. It was in service of that goal that DeLay masterminded a redistricting plan in Texas that gave Republicans five new House seats in 2004. His indictment Wednesday arises from fundraising in connection with that plan.

A key question is whether Democrats will succeed in turning GOP ethics controversies to congressional electoral advantage in 2006. Some analysts see a parallel between current developments and the scandals involving Democrats in the late 1980s and early 1990s that helped lay the groundwork for Republicans to win control of Congress in 1994.

Democrats concede that it is a long shot for them to gain control of Congress. House districts in recent years have been carefully drawn to protect incumbents of both parties, so few seats are competitive. And with elections more than a year away, it is hard to predict how the political climate may shift.

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A series of controversies could also turn voters against incumbents of both parties -- a “throw the bums out” mentality. “I’m not certain that voters are sophisticated enough to see this as Republican wrongdoing rather than Congress,” said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.). “So we have to be very careful how we handle this.”

Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) echoed: “Anytime you have anything that even smacks of scandal, I think it hurts all of us.”

Some Republicans think the political fallout can be contained if Congress and Bush keep pushing their legislative agenda. “If we can do something positive -- on Katrina relief or immigration reform -- we’ll be fine by the end of the year,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

But Republicans are divided over some major issues. They disagree on how -- or whether -- to offset the enormous cost of reconstructing the Gulf Coast. On immigration, Bush’s call for temporarily legalizing millions of workers is bitterly controversial.

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Those are just the kinds of tough issues that Republicans count on DeLay to help drive through the House. “It’s going to be harder for Republicans to pass whatever it is the Republicans want to pass,” said former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who left office in January and is now president of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “If there’s a tough vote, there’s been nobody like DeLay for rounding up the votes and getting that job done.”

Times staff writers Tom Hamburger and Richard Simon contributed to this report.


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