WASHINGTON — A Texas judge refused Monday to throw out money laundering charges against Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), potentially derailing his effort to regain his House leadership post.
Judge Pat Priest in Austin did dismiss one charge against DeLay, which alleged conspiracy to violate Texas election law.
The ruling came just hours before Vice President Dick Cheney, in a show of support for DeLay by the White House, headlined a campaign fundraiser for him in Houston.
DeLay was forced by House GOP rules to resign as majority leader -- the chamber's second-ranking position -- when he was indicted this fall. A dismissal of all charges against DeLay would have allowed him to try to win back his post, which is being temporarily filled by Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Lacking a dismissal, DeLay's lawyers have sought a trial as early as January, hoping he would be acquitted and then could attempt to reclaim his leadership job. But now the trial may not start for several months.
Some House Republicans are pressing their leaders not to wait for a resolution of DeLay's legal problems before the GOP caucus selects a permanent replacement for him.
"Members want a permanent structure at the beginning of the year to manage the House," said an aide to the House Republican leadership, who requested anonymity when discussing the internal party debate.
The ruling drew new attention to legal problems swirling around Republicans on Capitol Hill.
A former DeLay aide, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to bribe officials as a lobbyist. Scanlon worked with Jack Abramoff, another lobbyist close to GOP congressional leaders who is under federal investigation.
Several Republicans are concerned that their connections to the lobbyists could cause them political and legal problems.
In a separate case, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) announced his resignation from the House on Nov. 28 after pleading guilty to accepting bribes.
Also, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is under federal investigation for possible financial wrongdoing.
DeLay has said the case against him in Texas was politically motivated to diminish his power. The Democratic district attorney pressing the case against DeLay, Ronald D. Earle, has denied that charge.
At issue is $190,000 in corporate donations given to an arm of the Republican National Committee by DeLay's political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority. Soon after, the Republican National Committee contributed the same amount to seven GOP legislative candidates in Texas. The direct use of corporate money in state campaigns is illegal in Texas.
DeLay's lawyer has argued that the Texas candidates received money from a separate Republican National Committee account funded by private, not corporate, donors.
A spokesman for DeLay, Kevin Madden, said the judge's decision to dismiss the one conspiracy count against the congressman "underscores just how baseless and politically motivated the charges were. "
But Cris Feldman, an Austin lawyer who represented Texas Democrats in a civil suit involving allegations of campaign irregularities in the 2002 legislative races, said, "DeLay still has to go to trial on a first-degree felony, and I don't think anyone would call that a victory."
Even if DeLay is acquitted, he may face his most serious electoral challenge yet next fall. In 2004, he won his 11th term with 55% of the vote. DeLay, who was first elected in 1984, had never won less than 60% of the vote.
Democrats have recruited former four-term Rep. Nick Lampson to challenge DeLay in 2006. Lampson was one of several Texas Democrats ousted from their seats in 2004 after DeLay engineered a redrawing of House boundaries in the state.
DeLay may be more politically vulnerable because of the redistricting. As reconfigured, his Houston-area district included many voters he had not previously represented -- and they are hearing more about him largely through news coverage of his indictment and other ethics controversies.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday found that 49% of registered voters in the district said they planned to support a Democrat in next year's election; 36% said they would vote for DeLay.
Times staff writers Richard Simon and Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.