|Tom DeLay- Corporate Whore|
By Jill Zuckman
Published March 15, 2005
WASHINGTON -- A groundswell of criticism generated by alleged ethical lapses concerning House Majority Leader Tom Delay is forcing the Texas lawmaker to seek support from GOP colleagues and is threatening to harm the Republican legislative agenda on Capitol Hill.
DeLay plans to start talking to fellow Republicans in his own defense this week, a senior aide said, as Democrats intensify their attacks on him in an effort to neutralize their longtime foe.
While DeLay defends himself against questions about his fundraising activities and travels, as well as the dealings of lobbyists closely aligned with his office, Democrats and their supporters are sensing a rare opportunity and have launched a multipronged effort to publicize the allegations against him.
The Democratic National Committee on Tuesday is launching "DeLay's Dastardly Doings" on its Web site, a daily digest of charges against the Republican leader.
For the GOP, a question is whether DeLay's ethics troubles will soon outweigh the benefits of his leadership. Complex tangles of politics and finances have brought down powerful lawmakers before--from former House Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).
At a minimum, DeLay's troubles threaten to distract from the Republican agenda as lawmakers struggle to address complicated budget and Social Security legislation. The feelings among House Republicans range from ill at ease to uncomfortable.
"I do think this is going to be a problem for the party. There's no question about it," said one Republican House member who asked to remain anonymous.
"One reason we came into the majority is that the other party was ethically challenged, and if we don't learn a lesson from that, we're pretty dumb," the congressman said.
Democrats on the House ethics committee are protesting Republican-imposed rule changes and Speaker Dennis Hastert's decision to remove several lawmakers who previously criticized DeLay.
Eight outside public watchdog groups are planning a news conference Tuesday to denounce House Republican leaders for those actions, which have led to a standoff on the ethics panel, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, leaving it unformed and inoperative.
Last year, the hard-charging DeLay was rebuked three times by the ethics committee.
A Texas grand jury indicted three of DeLay's top political aides on charges of illegally raising money from corporations in 2002 and sending the money to Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature.
DeLay, whose nickname is "The Hammer," has long been reviled by Democrats as a ruthless ideologue willing to break the rules to force through his conservative agenda.
Republicans, however, admire him for increasing their House majority. And they often refer to him as "the concierge of Capitol Hill," appreciative that he takes care of their needs, be it money for their campaigns, a car at the national convention or barbecue dinners in his office during late-night sessions.
Aides to Hastert (R-Ill.) and DeLay argue that DeLay is on the receiving end of a coordinated partisan campaign by Democrats to dirty his reputation and drive him out of Congress.
"Speaker Hastert believes that Majority Leader DeLay is an extremely valuable and integral member of the team," Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said in defense of the chamber's second-in-command. "Despite Democrat partisan attacks, he remains focused on helping us pass a fiscally responsible budget and is deeply dedicated towards implementing the Republican agenda."
Still, DeLay faces an onslaught of criticism--both for his activities and for the breakdown of the ethics committee.
"I think we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation where the ethics enforcement process has been really crippled," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a non-profit, non-partisan group focused on ethics in government and eliminating big money in politics.
In Texas, five Democrats who lost their elections for the state Legislature have filed suit against the treasurer of DeLay's political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority. The civil trial has examined the House majority leader's involvement in the fundraising group.
Among his troubles are investigations by the Justice Department and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee into possible fraud and public corruption involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations executive Michael Scanlon, both of whom have close ties to DeLay.
Still pending before the House ethics committee are questions about a trip DeLay took with his wife and a delegation of House Republicans to South Korea in 2001 sponsored by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a registered foreign agent.
House rules prohibit accepting travel expenses from foreign agents or registered lobbyists, but aides to DeLay said he did not know that the group was a registered foreign agent and had trusted his former chief of staff, Ed Buckham, a lobbyist who helped create the council, that its role as the trip's sponsor was legitimate.
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