WASHINGTON — When it comes to fundraising and party discipline, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has spent his political career playing with fire.
Now the House ethics committee has told him to put away the matches.
The committee's rebuke of DeLay on Wednesday for his hardball tactics -- his second admonition letter in a week -- has cast a pall over his political future.
But the infractions for which he has been called on the carpet are not just about his personal ambitions. They arise from his broader political ambitions to win not just the next election for the Republicans, but to build the GOP into a lasting majority party -- a long-term goal shared by President Bush and his top political advisor, Karl Rove.
To expand the GOP majority, DeLay spearheaded efforts to redraw the Texas political map to favor Republican congressional candidates. He has tried to help the party lay claim to issues, such as Medicare, traditionally associated with Democrats. And he has tried, since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, to build Washington's lobbying establishment into a cadre of GOP loyalists.
But in pursuing those aims with gusto, the ethics committee warned, DeLay went too far when he involved a federal agency in the Texas redistricting fight, bullied a lawmaker in an effort to win his vote for a Medicare reform bill and leaned on a lobbying group because it did not hire a Republican as its president.
The committee's rebuke could dull one of the GOP's sharpest political tools if DeLay abides by its recommendation that he "temper" his actions in the future. But his colleagues say tempering the combative congressman -- whose nickname is "the Hammer" -- may be akin to forcing water to flow uphill.
"It's been his nature to live on the edge," said one senior House Republican who, fearing DeLay's wrath, spoke on condition of anonymity. "Hang around the edge of a cliff long enough, and you know you're going to fall off."
But precisely because DeLay has worked so tirelessly to build his party and raise money for his colleagues, Republicans are not likely to force him from his post as majority leader, despite the clamor Thursday from Democrats and public interest groups for his resignation.
"The ethical cloud that has been hanging over the Capitol has burst," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). "Mr. DeLay has proven himself to be ethically unfit to lead the party."
While most Republicans closed ranks behind DeLay, some said the mounting controversies might make it more difficult for him to advance up the congressional leadership ladder. DeLay, who became majority leader in 2002, has been considered a leading candidate to succeed House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, although the Illinois Republican has not said when he will retire.
"He's not going to get thrown out of his job," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who considered running against DeLay for majority leader two years ago. "But it raises a lot of questions about his future in terms of moving up. There's a lot of whispering going on."
"The aggregate weight [of DeLay's ethics problems] is heavy," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who has leadership ambitions of his own.
DeLay and his allies say the ethics complaints against him have been politically motivated by Democrats who want to demonize him and undercut his effectiveness, just as they hounded Newt Gingrich with an ethics investigation when he was House speaker. They emphasize that the most recent complaint was filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), who lost the Democratic primary in one of the redrawn districts this year.
"For years, Democrats have hurled relentless personal attacks at me, hoping to tie my hands and smear my name," DeLay said in response to the bipartisan committee's action.
DeLay's problems in Washington have mounted at a time when his political machine in Texas has also come under fire. Three of his closest political associates were indicted in Austin last month, accused of funneling illegal corporate campaign funds to Republican candidates for state office.
Wednesday's action by the ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, marked the third time DeLay had been admonished by the panel in recent years -- a rare record from a panel often accused of going too easy on lawmakers.
The committee of five Republicans and five Democrats unanimously rebuked DeLay for calling the Federal Aviation Administration to track down a plane carrying Democratic state legislators out of Texas during the redistricting fight. It also found it "objectionable" that DeLay staged a fundraiser in a way that appeared to link access to the congressman with political donations.