Supporters Honor DeLay Amid Ethics Controversy

Supporters of embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay attended a high-profile Washington dinner Thursday night thrown in his honor. Nearly 900 people showed up to toast the accomplishments of the Texas congressman as he faces a new ethics investigation in coming weeks.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of Washington's most powerful lawmakers was celebrated by his conservative allies last night. A dinner honored House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Republicans toasted his leadership of Congress in the past and the future. The guest of honor has been admonished repeatedly for ethics problems. He faces a new ethics investigation in the coming weeks, which is exactly why conservatives gathered to defend him, as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

The tables were set: red carnations in place, butter pats shaped like the Capitol dome and a giant sign reading, `The conservative movement salutes Tom DeLay.' Last night more than 800 supporters flooded the ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel. That's because, says David Keene of the American Conservative Union, conservatives will protect their own. And he says, the recent criticism is more than an attack on Tom DeLay.

Mr. DAVID KEENE (American Conservative Union): It's an attack on the conservative agenda. It's an attack on the leadership abilities that he brings to the conservative agenda in the House of Representatives. And it's an attack on each and every person in this room.

SEABROOK: In the room were 30 or so members of Congress, including House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and dozens of other conservative luminaries. Table sponsors, at $2,000 a pop, included the National Rifle Association, the Family Research Council and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb. As a happy chatter rose from the DeLay supporters inside, protesters outside made a different sound, more like a carnival barker.

Unidentified Man: Oh, we've got a smashed ...(unintelligible) right here. He's going to smash it. Let's see what he's got.

SEABROOK: `Hammer the Hammer' barked Scott Finstein(ph) of Campaign for a Cleaner Congress. He's referring to DeLay's nickname, `The Hammer,' for his hard-hitting political strategies. The protesters mean to make their demonstration sound like a carnival to mock what they say the Congress has become, a circus. Peter Kelly(ph) also works with the group.

Mr. PETER KELLY (Campaign for a Cleaner Congress): We think the House Ethics Committee is broken. Delay's given money to all those people and if we're ever going to find out what happened here in Congress, we're going to need an independent investigator.

SEABROOK: So dozens of protesters called on DeLay to clean up his act and tried to hand out bars of soap to the people entering the DeLay tribute dinner. Inside, none of that seemed to faze the guests or planners, who launched into a two-and-a-half-hour dinner and program of speeches and videos to inspire confidence in Tom DeLay. There were prayers, this one from DeLay's own pastor, Ed Young of Houston.

Pastor ED YOUNG (Houston): We're thankful for this team and we're thankful for this man especially who has led in so many ways.

SEABROOK: And there were videotaped testimonials from DeLay's allies, like House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (House Speaker): (From videotape) Tom has shown the ability to get things done. That kind of success often makes you a target in this town, but it's important to keep in mind that Tom DeLay is making a difference in Washington. He's making a difference for the American people.

SEABROOK: And there was much flogging of Democrats and especially the press, which many speakers claim began a purposeful drive to take DeLay down.

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: And, of course, the main event was the man himself. DeLay wiped a tear from his eye as he drew a long standing ovation. To this adoring room, DeLay recounted 10 round years of Republican successes.

Representative TOM DELAY (Republican, Texas): We have banned partial-birth abortion and written into federal law the protection of unborn children from attacks against their pregnant mothers. We have reasserted the constitutional role of Congress and of the courts in interpreting our laws. We have reaffirmed both the indispensable role of faith in our society and the definition of marriage as a sacred bond between one man and one woman, period. And we have defended the dignity of all human life, born and unborn, wanted and unwanted, loved and unloved, because human life is not given its dignity by its quality but by its creator.

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: All this, said Tom DeLay, and Republicans are just getting warmed up. For dessert, diners were treated to red, white and blue cakes with plastic hammers on top and a special song paid tribute.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) He's the hammer of justice. He's the hammer of freedom.

SEABROOK: Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...brothers and our sisters, all over this land. Now we've got a hammer, to hammer in the morning. He hammers in the evening...

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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