House Republicans Prepare to Pick New Leader

House Republicans will hold leadership elections later in January. U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) opened the door for a vote Saturday, saying he would not fight to retain the post of majority leader. He's charged with violating Texas campaign finance laws.

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The campaigning has begun for those trying to succeed Tom DeLay as House majority leader. DeLay announced over the weekend that he will no longer try to reclaim his position, and that began a leadership shakeup among House Republicans, who will vote for a new team later this month. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

In the end, it was DeLay's unmatched prowess as a fund-raiser and power broker that both built his power and brought it to an end. Yes, many of his long-time allies stood by him, even defended him, as he was admonished three times by the House Ethics Committee, indicted in Texas for allegedly masterminding a money laundering scheme for Republican candidates and forced to step aside temporarily from his post of majority leader. But after all of this, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake says, the possibility that DeLay could also be tangled in a web of corruption surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff was too much.

Representative JACK ABRAMOFF (Republican, Arizona): The Abramoff stuff was just too tough to shake, to big a cloud to move ahead with a meaningful reform agenda when you have that hanging over you.

SEABROOK: As part of a plea deal, Abramoff agreed to work with investigators ferreting out corrupt members of Congress. And chief among Abramoff's best friends and associates is Tom DeLay. With that realization, DeLay's support among Republicans in Congress finally crumbled. Still, the man remains defiant, even as he announced he would no longer seek to reclaim the spot of majority leader.

Representative TOM DeLAY (Republican, Texas): In the 21 years that I have been in Congress, I have always acted in an ethical manner within the rules of the House and the laws of our land, and time, once again, will bear that--bear out that truth.

SEABROOK: And DeLay made it clear he's still running for re-election for his seat in Congress this fall. But many Republicans believe DeLay's move does little to cleanse the party of the taint of corruption.

Representative CHRIS SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): We have to kind of undo what we've done.

SEABROOK: Connecticut Republican Chris Shays says his party's leaders have brought this crisis on themselves by sticking with DeLay for so long.

Rep. SHAYS: After we won the election in November, there was an attempt to say that you didn't have to step down if you were indicted as a leader. When my constituents learned of that, they said, `Who is this Tom DeLay you're trying to protect?' They didn't even know him, basically, a year ago.

SEABROOK: Shays and his colleagues worry that Republicans could pay a big price in November, and many Democrats hope so. They will make the case to voters that it's not just the man but the party that's corrupt, and that Democrats deserve to control the House. But House Republicans are poised to do everything they can to clean themselves up and keep the majority. Speaker Dennis Hastert will push legislation placing new restrictions on lobbyists, and New Hampshire Republican Charlie Bass hopes the next few weeks will do much to exorcise the party's demons.

Representative CHARLIE BASS (Republican, New Hampshire): Now we're going to have an open, vigorous, active race for the majority leader, which hasn't happened in a long time. Amongst candidates--are going to have to persuade members of Congress that they have a vision, that they're concerned about the transparency and honesty and integrity of the political process in Washington.

SEABROOK: Already the race has begun. Members of Congress are burning up the phone lines and cellular airwaves, campaigning for the open slots and puzzling out what's best for the party right now. The main candidates to replace DeLay so far are Missouri's Roy Blunt, a protege of DeLay's and the current majority whip, and Ohio's John Boehner, popular among his colleagues but outside the current power structure. But many names are being tossed around. Indiana's Mike Pence, Arizona's John Shadegg and others are likely to enter the leadership race. Then, after an intense three weeks, House Republicans will vote by secret ballot after they return to Washington on January 31st.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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