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As Scandal Echoes, DeLay's GOP Critics Grow Louder

January 06, 2006|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Pressure mounted Thursday on former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to abandon his plan to reclaim his Republican leadership post, with one conservative saying the Texan's legal woes and links to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff had made him a political liability.

"Sooner or later, self-interest creeps in," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). "Here is the threshold question that my colleagues will be asking themselves: How many would today accept a contribution from Mr. DeLay or ask him to come to their district? That becomes the threshold question, the barometer. That is something Tom DeLay understands."

Flake also said that although many Republicans still regarded DeLay as a masterful politician, "certainly, in the last couple of days, more people have seen it differently."

Flake's blunt assessment reflected the views of a growing number of Republican lawmakers and senior GOP aides on Capitol Hill. Although few were willing to speak on the record, the discussions about DeLay's future illustrated the unease within party ranks sparked by the Abramoff scandal.

The talk also underscored the political struggle confronting DeLay, who for years was perhaps the most influential Republican in Congress.

Flake said that he expected Republican House members to begin circulating a letter within days asking for leadership elections, and that he intended to be among those signing it.

The signatures of 50 Republicans would force a vote among the chamber's 231 GOP members on whether the party should conduct the elections.

DeLay relinquished his job as House majority leader in September after he was indicted in Texas on money laundering charges. He is ineligible to run for the post as long as he faces those charges.

Previously, many Republican lawmakers would have balked at any move to permanently replace DeLay as majority leader, for fear of angering him.

But the political landscape has changed following guilty pleas Abramoff entered this week in fraud and corruption cases and his decision to cooperate in federal investigations into links between him and other lawmakers, mostly Republicans.

Flake said, "There are some who say, rightly or wrongly, [DeLay] has become the face of a culture gone bad in Washington."

Several key Republican aides, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's political sensitivity, said they thought that DeLay would voluntarily step aside -- or that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), his longtime ally, would ask him to do so -- if the rank-and-file members began circulating the letter seeking leadership elections.

But Kevin Madden, a spokesman for DeLay, said his boss had no intention of abandoning his bid to return to his leadership post.

"The support for Mr. DeLay has been emphatic and stated publicly," Madden said. "Mr. DeLay continues to enjoy support because people know that he's an effective leader."

DeLay's prospects for blocking a move for new leadership elections as long as he cannot run is likely to hinge on how much support he can retain among conservatives who comprise the majority of GOP House members.

Some Republican moderates have made it clear that they favor permanently replacing DeLay as a House leader.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) said Wednesday: "There is a compelling case to have leadership elections. There are certain rules of scandals and one is that the quicker they are dealt with, the wiser it is."

Discussing the stakes involved for Republicans, Leach said, "How political parties come to deal with scandal can be as important as scandal itself. It is very important that the issues be dealt with forthrightly and directly."

Also Wednesday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is respected in GOP conservative circles, said it was time for House Republicans to elect a new majority leader and enact reforms on lobbying activities.

He was joined in that call by former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), who has close ties to the White House.

On Thursday, conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich added his voice to those urging DeLay to give up his quest to reclaim his leadership job.

"As a friend and a longtime supporter of Tom, I'm saying that I don't think Republicans need a leader who has had the kind of close association with Abramoff that he has," said Weyrich, who heads the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, a think tank.

One former senior Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abramoff's guilty pleas were "the final straw that broke the camel's back" for GOP tolerance of Delay's legal problems.

House GOP rules required DeLay to step down as majority leader when he was indicted in Texas. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was picked as his temporary replacement.

DeLay repeatedly has predicted he would be cleared of the charges against him. It remains unclear when the Texas case will come to trial.

DeLay maintains that he is the victim of a political witch hunt by Ronald D. Earle, the Democratic district attorney who sought the indictment of DeLay and two associates on charges stemming from contributions to Republican candidates for the Texas legislature in 2002.

Earle appears to be widening his probe.

On Thursday, he sought subpoenas to obtain information about a $500,000 contribution made by the National Republican Congressional Committee to U.S. Family Network, a nonprofit organization linked to Delay and Abramoff in the 1990s.

The now-defunct group promoted a conservative agenda and was backed by DeLay. The Washington Post recently reported that its donor list included many Abramoff clients.

Those targeted for subpoena by Earle included Ed Buckham, former chief of staff for DeLay who founded U.S. Family Network, and Sally Vastola, executive director of the NRCC.

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