End of the DeLay Era Arrives on Capitol Hill

Liane Hansen speaks with Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, about Tom DeLay's decision to abandon hopes of returning to the House leadership, and the ramifications of the indictment of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Tom DeLay, the beleaguered Republican congressman from Texas, formally stepped down as House majority leader this week. DeLay had temporarily stepped aside from his leadership post in September after being indicted in Texas on charges of money laundering and conspiracy. DeLay had insisted that he would retake his old job, but his political and possibly legal troubles deepened this past week when Washington super lobbyist Jack Abramoff made a deal with prosecutors to provide evidence about influence peddling on Capitol Hill. At a new conference yesterday, DeLay said he did not want his troubles to stand in the way of the Republican agenda. Doyle McManus is Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and a regular guest on our show and he's in the studio.

Good morning. Welcome back, Doyle.

DOYLE MCMANUS: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: So is this the end of the Tom DeLay era on the Hill? I mean, I know that he's giving up the majority leader job, but he is going to seek re-election to his seat.

MCMANUS: It is the end of the DeLay era. You know, when the era began back in 1994, we thought it was going to be called the Newt Gingrich era, but it turned out that the important thing about Republican domination of the House of Representatives over the whole last decade in many ways really has been the extraordinary discipline and cohesion that was brought by the commanding power of Tom DeLay, a terrific tactician, a very tough arm-twister. When the House leadership made up its mind, the dissendents pretty much got out of the way. And Tom DeLay then coupled that with what he and his allies called the K Street Project, this whole attempt to turn the great money engine of Washington lobbying into a kind of adjunct to their political power, and that, of course, is what's gotten him into trouble. I think those two factors are now gone.

Now Tom DeLay is going to go back to Texas and seek re-election, but he's got some tough races there. There may even be a primary challenger on the Republican side. There's a former House member, a Democrat, who's going to run against him and attract a lot of money from across the country. So he is in a fight for his political life. If I had to guess now, he'll keep his seat, but his nomination is over.

HANSEN: So what does the lineup look like for candidates to replace him as majority leader?

MCMANUS: Well, there are some interesting characters there. Roy Blunt of Missouri is the establishment candidate. He's Tom DeLay's stand-in at the moment. John Boehner of Ohio, a fiscal conservative, is probably going to run, but both of them have a problem that is really going to kind of define this race. Both of them were also recipients of campaign contributions from Jack Abramoff. And the real problem that faces the Republican caucus now is: How far do they have to distance themselves from their own K Street Project? How clear a break do they have to make with the DeLay legacy? And will they have to do what some of their aides are calling skipping a generation and reaching down to some of the interesting younger Republicans like Mike Pence of Indiana, a very strongly conservative House member but one who hasn't been tainted by all this stuff.

HANSEN: Now talk about being tainted by all of these things, I mean, the result of Jack Abramoff's plea agreement with prosecutors could mean that both Republicans, Democrats could be implicated.

MCMANUS: Already have been implicated. Dick Durbin, the senator from Illinois, a member of the Democratic leadership in the Senate, has already announced he's giving back tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that he got from the Abramoff folks. And there is going to be an element here where folks are going to look at this and say, `Well, it's business as usual in Washington. It hits both sides.' And if you look at the polls, that's pretty much what the American public thinks about it so far. But I don't think that's how the story is going to play out because the interesting part of this story really is the network that was around Tom DeLay, the fact that people who worked for Tom DeLay then went to work for Jack Abramoff. This is going to be kind of a soap opera that's going to play out over months and months, and most of the characters are going to end up having Republican after their name.

HANSEN: But if you're saying that Americans are thinking about this as politics as usual in Washington, do you mean that this story is not going to have any legs outside of Washington?

MCMANUS: If you had asked me that question a couple of weeks ago, I would have said, `Yeah, this is still pretty much an inside the beltway thing and folks out there, Jack Abramoff, who on Earth is that?' That's no longer true. This story is developing legs and there are two reasons. One is substantive. It's touching more members of Congress. The other one if you'll forgive me is kind of a literary or dramatic issue. I'd call it Jack Abramoff's fedora. Jack Abramoff appeared at his own indictment in a rather dramatic kind of "Sopranos" costume. This is a man with a flare for drama, and that's a big problem for everyone who dealt with him. And we know that there are thousands of pages of e-mails in which he bragged about his access. He bragged to his clients that he could get Tom DeLay or others to do anything he liked. That's real trouble, but it will make for a quite compelling story, I think, as the months go by and Americans are going to pay attention to that.

HANSEN: I want to focus a bit on the president because all of this seems to have distracted attention from the fact that the president will be delivering his State of the Union address in about two weeks. Are you picking up any hints at all about what the president might have to say?

MCMANUS: We are. You know, what any president wants to do with his State of the Union address is to break through the clutter and frame the year around his own agenda. And President Bush desperately needs to do that this year. Last year didn't work out so well for him. Social Security was a big priority. It went nowhere. Hurricane Katrina didn't help. He is struggling to regain momentum. OK. He wants to talk about the economy and making his tax cuts permanent. He wants to talk about his immigration proposals. He wants to talk about health care. But Jack Abramoff and all this other stuff is making it real hard to break through. We saw that last week when they tried to talk about the economy. The other problem before him now is: Does he have to add a new item to his agenda, lobbying reform, ethics? Does he have to get out in front of this train? The betting is he does and there's a lot of scrambling going on in the White House now trying to figure out how can George W. Bush get himself on the side of the angels.

HANSEN: Will the president have to address the National Security Agency domestic spying story? I mean, this continues. Friday, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service had a report that strongly questioned his legal justifications for authorizing the tapping of phones. How serious a problem is this because he has very strongly defended his actions?

MCMANUS: He has. It is still a problem. That Congressional Research Service report made in effect two challenges to his policy. One was legal. It said that, you know, the president has said that he had the legal right to do this and the Congressional Research Service which is non-partisan said, `Well, he probably didn't,' although that one is still debatable. The one that I think is more troublesome in a sense is the political problem, is the question of: Did Congress authorize this, which, of course, the White House has claimed? And there the Congressional Research Service as members of Congress have said the answer is absolutely not, and that one is still a very scratchy question for a lot of members of Congress.

HANSEN: And very briefly, Doyle, of course, Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito begin tomorrow. Abortion seemed to be the main issue, but lately we've got domestic spying, privacy issues. This is going to be pretty difficult for him to deal with.

MCMANUS: It is. Instead of having one big challenge, Alito now has two, and I think in a sense, the wiretapping, the presidential power problem is more difficult and here's why. Over the years, conservatives have developed a vocabulary to talk about the abortion issue and satisfy the country and the Senate that they can be OK on that issue. This is a new one and Judge Alito has taken some very tough positions on it in the past.

HANSEN: Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times.

Doyle, thanks for coming in.

MCMANUS: Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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Correction Jan. 15, 2006

Doyle McManus erred when he said Sen. Richard Durbin is "giving back tens of thousands of dollars" from associates of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The actual amount is $11,000, and the money is going to charity.

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