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GOP's Go-To Guy Could Pose Risks for President

Tom DeLay's combative conservatism may harm Bush's effort to broaden the GOP's appeal.

June 16, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom DeLay, a tough political power broker from Texas, is known throughout the nation's capital as "The Hammer." But for President Bush, he is more like a double-edged sword.

DeLay, the House majority leader, is renowned for the pull-no-punches partisan style that earned him his nickname and made him one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress. Since Bush took office, DeLay has put his clout into driving the administration's agenda through Congress.

But some analysts say that DeLay's pugnacious conservatism -- most recently illustrated by his resistance to a White House-backed tax cut bill to provide benefits for low-income families -- also poses political risks for Bush.

While Bush seeks to broaden the appeal of the GOP with his brand of "compassionate conservatism," DeLay excels at catering to the party's core conservative base in a way that some fear will alienate independent voters.

"Tom DeLay has his strengths," said Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), who disagrees with him on such issues as abortion rights and gun control. "But I don't think that among his great strengths is the ability to warm the hearts of 'soccer moms' and other swing voters."

Having kept relatively quiet for a few months after becoming House majority leader in January, DeLay increasingly has shown his combative edge.

Last week, the White House urged House Republicans to quickly pass tax benefits for lower-income families, hoping to douse criticism that the new tax cut law Bush pushed through Congress gave short shrift to the working poor. Defying pressure to approve a narrowly tailored Senate bill on the issue, DeLay and his allies passed a more sweeping measure that, because it includes costly tax breaks for more-affluent families, is sure to prolong the controversy.

This spring, the White House reiterated that Bush wanted to extend a law banning certain assault weapons, a 2000 campaign promise he made on an issue polls show is important to many swing voters. DeLay -- a fervent supporter of gun-owner rights -- threw cold water on the idea, saying the extension could not pass the House.

And although Bush came to Washington hailing his bipartisan dealings with the Texas Legislature while he was governor, DeLay recently helped unleash bare-knuckle partisanship in Austin. He championed a plan to redraw the state's congressional districts that critics said was a naked GOP power grab.

Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, said DeLay's efforts tend to "revive the image of the Republican Party as the party of Newt Gingrich," the former House speaker from Georgia whose policies Bush seemed to repudiate with his notion of "compassionate conservatism."

"DeLay really has the potential to create problems for the White House, because he gets in the way of the leadership style Bush is using," Black said.

Bush allies inside and outside the White House say, however, that DeLay will prove an important contributor to Bush's reelection bid by helping the administration deliver a full plate of legislative achievements.

"There's always going to be some give-and-take," said one White House official who asked not to be named. But the aide added that any disagreements with DeLay ultimately are less important than "a long list of accomplishments."

DeLay acknowledged in an interview that he "may have some detractors at the White House who may not appreciate my style."

But he said he has much in common with the president -- their roots in Texas, their age (both are 56), their families (they both have daughters), and their political and legislative agendas. He sees no conflict between Bush's attempts to expand the party's appeal and his own approach.

"I've always thought of myself as a compassionate person," DeLay said. "I've always felt that conservative philosophy was much more compassionate than liberal philosophy."

Still, DeLay comes to his politics from a different place than Bush.

While government service is practically a family business for the president, DeLay is a former pest control executive whose first race for the House was sparked partly out of frustration with government rules affecting his small business. He is an advocate of free markets with a deep skepticism about government's ability to be a constructive force in solving domestic problems. He led the charge, after Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, to roll back environmental regulation of business. His critique was so harsh -- he called the Environmental Protection Agency the "Gestapo of government" -- that even some in his own party recoiled.

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