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GOP Tries to Outrun Scandal

January 05, 2006|Mary Curtius, Janet Hook and John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — From the White House to Capitol Hill, prominent Republicans scrambled Wednesday to shed campaign contributions linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, as his guilty pleas in fraud and corruption cases opened a painful debate within the party over its leadership and direction.

President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and DeLay's temporary successor in that post, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, joined a lengthening list of politicians whose campaign committees have returned or donated to charities money they received from Abramoff, his associates and his clients.

More lawmakers were expected to follow suit in what was becoming a stampede to distance themselves from a lobbyist who once enjoyed easy access to Washington's corridors of power.

The spreading Abramoff scandal is considered so politically toxic that some Republicans urged the party Wednesday to make broad changes if it hoped to preserve its control of Congress in November's elections. These moves include the quick selection of a permanent House majority leader -- which would block DeLay's efforts to return to the position -- and a party commitment to champion lobbying reforms.

The cloud surrounding Abramoff grew Wednesday when he pleaded guilty in Miami to federal fraud charges arising from his purchase of SunCruz Casinos, a fleet of gambling boats in Florida. On Tuesday, he pleaded guilty in Washington to three federal felonies stemming from his lobbying activities.

Anxieties on Capitol Hill are mounting because Abramoff -- once a key player in the vaunted "K Street" lobbying project that DeLay built into a powerful tool to help maintain Republican majorities in the House and Senate -- is cooperating with federal prosecutors in a wide-ranging corruption investigation.

The probe is focused on whether at least a half-dozen members of Congress and several aides traded legislative action in return for lavish trips, gifts and campaign contributions orchestrated by Abramoff.

Although some Democrats received Abramoff-linked contributions and favors, the lobbyist -- a Republican activist since college -- spent most of his time and money helping the GOP.

Records have shown that Abramoff helped funnel at least $100,000 to Bush's reelection campaign. Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said Wednesday that the campaign had decided to donate to the American Heart Assn. $6,000 in contributions connected to Abramoff. She said that amount covered separate $2,000 donations from Abramoff, his wife and an Indian tribe in Michigan that he represented.

A spokeswoman for DeLay, who had close ties to Abramoff, announced he would donate to charities in Texas $15,000 given to his campaign committee by Abramoff and his wife.

A spokesman for Frist said a $2,000 contribution from the Michigan tribe that Abramoff represented would be given back to them, and Blunt's office said he would be donating to charity $8,500 his campaign received in Abramoff-linked money.

Among those calling for change within the Republican Party was Vin Weber, a GOP lobbyist and former House member from Minnesota with close ties to the Bush administration. "If they don't take fairly dramatic action and reclaim the mantle of reform, [Republicans] are going to lose the House," Weber said.

And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said he thought DeLay was no longer in a position to be House leader. "They have to elect a new majority leader," Gingrich said. "My bet is they will."

Under GOP House rules, DeLay gave up his leadership position when he was indicted late last year in Texas on money-laundering charges. DeLay has expressed confidence he will be cleared of the charges and has sought a speedy trial. But so far, his lawyers have been unable to expedite his case.

"At some point it goes 'Tilt,' " Gingrich said. "You don't have to say Tom is guilty of anything to say they need a new majority leader. A very significant number of House members said to me [Wednesday] morning that the entire world has changed in the last few days" because of the Abramoff scandal.

If House Republicans decide to choose a permanent replacement for DeLay, many Republicans expect Blunt to be challenged by Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education Committee.

Don Seymour Jr., Boehner's press secretary, denied reports that the lawmaker had begun calling colleagues to line up support. "Some members have approached him, but he isn't approaching them," Seymour said. "He hasn't asked for a single vote."

In the Senate, Frist said that after consulting with members, he would "examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying."

Republicans have sought to portray the Abramoff scandal as one that potentially touches members of both parties, pointing out that Democrats took campaign money from the lobbyists and those connected to him.

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