Sunday, October 03, 2004

DeLay Cases Could Imperil His Climb Within the House


WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 - Representative Tom DeLay, the majority leader rebuked by House ethics officials for pressuring a fellow member to switch his vote on a health care bill, still faces potentially more serious accusations, subjecting him to a new scrutiny that even some Republicans say could complicate his political future.

Mr. DeLay, the take-no-prisoners Texan known for maintaining strict discipline in his caucus, is entangled in a series of inquiries here and in Texas regarding his fund-raising and other activities. In Texas, three of his top aides have been indicted; in Washington, the House ethics panel is deciding whether to initiate a formal investigation.

On Friday, Republicans publicly rallied around their leader, though some said privately that the surprise ethics rebuke on Thursday - the second for Mr. DeLay, who was previously chastised for pressuring interest groups to hire Republicans - could hinder the leader if he tried to become speaker.

Democrats, who are already making Mr. DeLay an issue in their campaigns, attacked him on Friday for what Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, called a "continued abuse of power.'' She said there was "an ethical cloud over this Capitol because of how he is conducting business here.''

The fracas is evoking memories of past ethics battles that have roiled Capitol Hill, and contributed to the ouster of two previous House speakers, Jim Wright, a Democrat, and Newt Gingrich, a Republican. Both ultimately faced calls from their own party members to step down, which is not the case with Mr. DeLay.

"If there is any pattern, it is that whenever anybody gets in power and becomes an effective leader in Washington, the other side, rather than beating them with ideas and philosophy, does a flank movement on ethics charges,'' said Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Mr. Kingston predicted that by Monday the ethics rebuke would be a "nonstory.''

But more than one Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear they would anger their party's powerbroker, said Mr. DeLay's ethics history might make it difficult for him to become speaker someday.

"There are a lot of folks who want to see that happen, and they're a little depressed right now," one said.

A spokesman for Mr. DeLay, Stuart Roy, dismissed the Democratic criticism as politically motivated, and said the leader was not worried about the speaker's job. "He has said in the past that the only job he ever wanted was whip,'' Mr. Roy said, "and he has let everything else take care of itself.''

The rebuke, issued Thursday night, stems from last year's vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill. The committee found that as the bill appeared headed to defeat, Mr. DeLay offered to endorse the son of a Michigan congressman, Representative Nick Smith, in a Congressional primary in return for Mr. Smith's vote in favor of the measure. Mr. Smith, a Republican who considered the bill too expensive, refused; he was admonished for what the panel said was exaggerating the pressure and inducements made to him.

The bill passed; Mr. Smith's son lost the primary.

For the ethics panel, which is composed of five members of each party, investigating the House majority leader is a task so delicate that the panel made public its 62-page report practically under cover of darkness, dropping it off in the House press gallery without comment.

In fact, the House had been awaiting the ethics panel's decision on a separate complaint, filed by Representative Chris Bell, Democrat of Texas, that accuses Mr. DeLay of illegally soliciting campaign contributions, laundering campaign contributions to influence state legislative races and improperly using his office to influence federal agencies. An announcement could come as early as next week.

The admonishment was particularly surprising since Mr. DeLay had not figured prominently in the controversy surrounding Mr. Smith. "It is like a second hurricane," one Republican official said.

Some wondered if a trade was afoot - a public slap in the Smith case in exchange for a decision not to pursue Mr. Bell's complaint. Others said the ethics panel now had no choice but to look into those accusations.

"Mr. DeLay has a track record now in the ethics area, and it's a bad one," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group that has called for the ethics panel to hire an independent counsel to investigate Mr. DeLay. "There's just no basis on which the House ethics committee can do anything now but seriously move forward with an investigation into the ethics complaint pending before it."

Democrats are encouraging their candidates to invoke Mr. DeLay's name in campaigns. Since the indictments, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has demanded that Republican candidates return donations from Mr. DeLay.

"He hasn't reached the stage of Newt Gingrich, but he has reached the center of gravity, where people do see him as representing the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, and as somebody who abused the rules of the House," said the committee's chairman, Representative Robert T. Matsui of California, in an interview on Friday.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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