DeLay's Down, But GOP's Not Out

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay appears on Capitol Hill, Sept. 28, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

It is hard to understate the buzz that went through Washington on Wednesday when word of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's indictment spread. In the Capitol, along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, and over to K Street, only a Redskins victory in the Super Bowl (or maybe a trip to the World Series for the Nationals) could come close to dropping as many jaws as this sudden news from Texas.

Suddenly the name of Ronnie Earle was everywhere. With one count of criminal conspiracy, the prosecutor who has been bringing cases against powerful Texans for decades had suddenly made a national name for himself. And what a perfect Texas name, Ronnie Earle! Didn't he sing duets with Loretta Lynn early in his career?

Nothing like an indictment of the most powerful Republican in town who is not named Bush to get the juices flowing. The dust still hasn't settled, so it's hard to predict how widespread an impact DeLay's legal woes will have. But a few things are clear.

DeLay's woes do not constitute a change of fortune for the House majority. Republicans were already struggling to enact their agenda this fall, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. A scheduled vote in the Senate to end the estate tax was postponed out of deference to the tens of thousands of poor displaced Gulf Coast residents who have little left in the way of material possessions, much less estates.

Action on the annual reconciliation bill, a fiscal measure that would have cut Medicaid spending by $10 billion and paved the way for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, was put off amid doubts about its fate in the Senate.

The president's plan to restructure Social Security was all but abandoned. Work on the annual appropriations bills to fund government agencies was, as usual, behind. And the seams of the GOP's big tent were already being strained by a debate over whether Katrina spending should be paid for by cuts elsewhere or by more deficit spending (also known as borrowing).

So DeLay's indictment comes at a time when the GOP was already struggling to get airborne this autumn. There have been internal divisions in the House, as he himself acknowledged in interviews after stepping aside as majority leader. And while the loss the DeLay's discipline and dynamism won't help, his continued presence may not have been enough to change the downward trend this fall.

That's because the real direction on these issues comes from the White House, which also supplies the ultimate muscle on close votes. And even Mr. Bush can't guarantee much these days, hobbled by weak job approval ratings and post-Katrina questions about his leadership. What clout he has right now needs to be devoted to confirming a Supreme Court successor to Sandra Day O'Connor.

Democrats, meanwhile, have some leadership issues of their own. They have long been hammering "The Hammer" (DeLay's nickname) for his ethical lapses, and now have additional ammunition with the Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Senate Majority leader Bill Frist's stock sale. Yet neither House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi nor her Senate counterpart Harry Reid have been able to gain much traction — or even much attention.

Part of it is their lack of charisma; part of it is the Democrats' continued failure to put forward an alternative vision of what the country needs or where they would take it. While Republicans rode to power a little more than a decade ago on a wave of revulsion at Democratic abuses of ethics and power, the GOP also painted a clear picture of where it wanted to go (the 1994 "Contract with America"). Democrats have been struggling to respond ever since.

So there is a kind of stalemate in Washington now, with both major parties adrift. Advantage: Republicans. They still control all the big levers of the federal government, and they are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. That, too, is the work of none other than Tom DeLay. With single-minded purpose he has built a political machine in Washington the likes of which hasn't been seen since Boss Shepherd (who in the late 19th century built much of the infrastructure that still supports modern Washington but who, alas, drove the city into bankruptcy and congressional control).

DeLay's machine has been responsible for raising millions of dollars for Republican candidates. Some two dozen former DeLay staffers work as lobbyists in Washington, where they not only influence legislation but raise more money for DeLay-backed candidates. It's DeLay who handpicked his then-lieutenant, Dennis Hastert, to become speaker in 1998 (after Newt Gingrich resigned). And it is his subsequent lieutenant, Roy Blunt of Missouri who succeeds him, if temporarily, today.

All that infrastructure remains in place whether DeLay returns as majority leader or not. So we can all look forward to a loud and lively rodeo as Ronnie Earle tries to rope Tom DeLay's bull down in Austin. But in Washington, it's going to be business as usual for awhile.

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