Politics with Ron Elving: Alito, DeLay

Madeleine Brand and Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor, discuss Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito and the road ahead for U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), who is currently under indictment in Texas. DeLay has given up his bid to reclaim his post as House majority leader.

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And the Alito nomination was once assumed to be the big story in Washington for January, but competition has emerged. Over the weekend, Tom DeLay announced he would give up his quest to return as the Republican majority leader in the House. He's fighting charges of money laundering in his native Texas and implications of involvement in an influence-peddling scandal in Washington. DeLay had been a major force behind the scenes since the Republicans won control over the House in 1994, and he was the most effective weapon President Bush had on Capitol Hill. Joining us to talk about what's coming next is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

And, Ron, first of all, let's go to the Alito hearings. How important is it for the Bush administration that those hearings go well?

RON ELVING reporting:

Here's how important. It's the best opportunity the Bush administration has for good news in January. The president wants to give his State of the Union address at the end of this month, and he wants it to have been a good month before he gives that speech. And with everything that's going on right now in Iraq and the problems being created by this influence-peddling scandal in Congress, the president is really hoping that these hearings in the Senate will give him a positive note.

BRAND: OK. Back to Tom DeLay now. Have we heard the last of him at least in Washington?

ELVING: Oh, we've certainly not heard the last about him. He'll figure prominently in the weeks and months of probing and publicity about this investigation ahead. It's, on the other hand, hard to see a way back to leadership for him. He's got to deal with his indictment back in Texas; that's what put him out of office temporarily last September. And now the focus is on the federal side, and this could go on for a long time now that Jack Abramoff is cooperating with investigators. And he, of course, is a longtime associate of Tom DeLay. So the combination is going to be highly distracting and even if he somehow gets exonerated on all counts, it's very hard to see how he makes his way back up to the top when they're having leadership elections to replace him, and that's why a lot of the conservative press has been suggesting that he step aside.

BRAND: And so who's in the wings to replace him?

ELVING: Right now it's a bit of a melee behind the curtain. Hierarchy says that next up should be Roy Blunt from Missouri. He's been doing the job in the interim. He used to be the House majority whip, and he's been the acting majority leader. But some House members think he's not been doing the job, at least not as effectively as Tom DeLay did. And he's certainly not in the same kind of weight class as far as forceful personality, and he doesn't have 20 years of fund raising and favors behind him in trying to do that job.

One of the rivals that was already announced is John Boehner of Ohio, kind of a mainstream Republican who used to be on the leadership ladder back in the 1990s but got bumped off when the DeLay team was installed after the fall of Newt Gingrich.

BRAND: Now there is some split, as I understand it, in the GOP ranks. There are some deficit hawks that have been in rebellion recently against leaders and even against the White House. Where are they?

ELVING: Yes. Those are the guys who have had the fire in the belly most recently, people like Mike Pence from Indiana, John Shadegg of Arizona. Mike Pence in particular is somebody to watch. He's been the leader of the Republican Study Committee in the House. That's roughly 80 members who want to return to the spirit of the mid-1990s, the budget cutting, deep spending cuts, even in popular programs like student loans and food stamps and Medicaid. If they were to vote as a bloc, they would be formidable.

BRAND: And what's going on with the Jack Abramoff lobbying investigation? Where is that headed?

ELVING: Well, it's going forward. DeLay and his associates are all going to have a lot of questions to answer: Bob Ney, from Ohio, congressman who has been almost literally named in the charges against Jack Abramoff. There are going to be some people investigated in the Senate. Many staffers--dozens of staffers in the House, in the Senate and possibly in the executive branch are going to be questioned. I guess the big question for this investigation now is: How far are they going to go in redefining what's legal and illegal in the usual lobbying and fund-raising activities of Washington, DC?

BRAND: Ron Elving is NPR senior Washington editor. You can read Ron's column Watching Washington at npr.org.

Thanks a lot, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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