House Republicans struggled Thursday to regain their political balance, one day after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay relinquished his leadership position after being indicted by a grand jury in his home state of Texas.
As he worked to unite the party and turn its attention back to the legislative agenda, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, DeLay’s successor as majority leader, faced ethics questions himself.
Records on file with the Federal Election Commission show that since 2003, Blunt’s political action committee has paid $94,000 in salary to the consulting firm of Jim Ellis, a longtime associate of DeLay. Ellis has been indicted in the same case as DeLay, for allegedly conspiring to illegally influence the outcome of Texas legislative elections by channeling corporate money to Republican candidates.
Congressional watchdog groups and Democrats pointed to Blunt hiring Ellis’ firm, JW Ellis Co., as evidence of what they said was an atmosphere of corruption on Capitol Hill.
This week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) confirmed that he was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department for a stock sale he ordered this year.
“It doesn’t surprise me because an ethical cloud does hang over this Capitol,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
Keri Ann Hayes, executive director of Blunt’s political action committee, confirmed in an interview that the group still employees Ellis as a political consultant.
“We just haven’t had any conversations about his status actually,” Hayes said in an interview. “He’s a political consultant. What he does is provide candidate and campaign analysis.”
Blunt has faced ethical question in the past.
The Washington Post reported in June 2003 that hours after DeLay elevated Blunt to be whip, Blunt tried to insert into a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security a provision that would have benefited Philip Morris USA Inc. Blunt had close ties to the tobacco company, which contributed heavily to his campaign PAC and was at the time dating one of its lobbyists, whom he later married.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and DeLay pulled the provision from the bill once it was brought to their attention, the Post reported.
Blunt reportedly also has had a tense relationship with DeLay, who has been his political mentor and rival. Several GOP lawmakers and staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that DeLay viewed Blunt as unable to deliver on some key votes during his tenure as whip -- a post at which DeLay was a master before he became majority leader.
“DeLay felt that Blunt wasn’t carrying his weight,” said one Republican lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of his comments.
One DeLay ally, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Blunt’s employment of Ellis was seen as a gesture of support for a DeLay associate that DeLay and his allies believed had been unfairly under attack by Ronnie Earle, the Democratic district attorney of Travis County, Texas, who sought the DeLay indictment.
“We believe that Ronnie Earle is a politically vindictive district attorney,” said the DeLay ally. “He’s pursuing Jim Ellis because he works for Tom DeLay.”
Earle’s defenders have pointed to a record that they say shows more prosecutions of Democrats than Republicans.
House Republicans, the DeLay ally predicted, would support Blunt’s employment of Ellis.
The questions about Blunt, however, added to anxiety among Republicans as they headed to their districts for the weekend.
Defensive about how the Bush administration responded to Hurricane Katrina, alarmed by President Bush’s slide in public opinion polls, and worried that Democrats would use ethics against them in next year’s congressional elections, Republicans saw the political ground slipping. Some spoke of disarray, and of a leadership vacuum triggered by DeLay’s abrupt removal from their top ranks.
“Tom DeLay was a bigger-than-life leader,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). “Our conference is in flux, there’s no question about it.”
Republicans took comfort in passing a revised Endangered Species Act, by a vote of 229 to 193, late Thursday afternoon. Its future is uncertain in the Senate, but House Republicans said it boosted their spirits to show they could still win approval of controversial legislation. Environmentalists and many Democrats said it would gut the act.
“This was the first test of our conference,” and its ability to put together legislative victories without DeLay’s leadership, said Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.). “Clearly, we’re not in turmoil.”
DeLay’s departure, even if temporary, is seen as a blow to Hastert, DeLay’s longtime ally. Some Republicans predicted that the more genial Hastert would have trouble controlling his increasingly fractious Republicans without DeLay. The first hint of what may lie ahead came Wednesday, when stiff opposition from conservatives forced him to back off his decision to replace DeLay with Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas).
Now, LaHood said, “you’re going to have other people trying to flex their muscles, really testing the speaker, who is going to have to shoulder a lot more responsibility while we get through a budget, figure out how to pay for the Gulf [Coast] disaster and maybe do immigration reform.”