Legal Woes May Sideline DeLay for a Year
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House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the man often described as the most effective member of Congress, has been knocked out of his position in the Republican leadership. Tom DeLay was indicted by a grand jury in Texas on one count of criminal conspiracy stemming from an alleged campaign finance scheme. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:
The indictment alleges that DeLay and two close associates basically laundered money to slip past campaign finance laws. In 2002, DeLay created a fund-raising committee called TRMPAC. That's Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee. By channeling money to state candidates, TRMPAC helped the GOP take control of the Texas Legislature for the first time since the 1800s, and the indictment stems from that work. See, in Texas, it's illegal for corporations to donate to candidates for state office. It has been for a century. So, the grand jury alleges, TRMPAC leaders had big businesses donate close to $200,000 to the national Republican Party, which, it alleged, turned around and wrote checks back to the state candidates.
If DeLay is convicted of any role in this scheme, he could face up to two years in prison. DeLay's response to the indictment was swift and unequivocal.
Representative TOM DeLAY (Republican, Texas): I have done nothing unlawful, unethical or, I might add, unprecedented. My defense in this case will not be technical or legalistic. It will be categorical and absolute. I am innocent. Mr. Earle and his staff know it, and I will prove it.
SEABROOK: The `Mr. Earle' DeLay refers to is Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle, the prosecutor who brought the charges to the grand jury. Earle is a Democrat who DeLay calls a partisan zealot with a vendetta against him. Earle denies this, noting he's prosecuted both Republicans and Democrats. Because party rules say a member under indictment can't hold a leadership position, DeLay was forced to step aside yesterday. House Republicans held a hasty closed-door meeting and unanimously voted for current Majority Whip Roy Blunt to take DeLay's post. Here's what Blunt had to say afterwards.
Representative ROY BLUNT (Republican, Missouri): I think largely because of his effectiveness as a leader, he became a target. We all believe that he'll return once this indictment is out of the way, to be the leader again. That's what our rules call for. That's why my current situation will be to act as temporary leader.
SEABROOK: Inside that meeting, DeLay said his colleagues rallied around him, echoing his cries of partisan attack and vowing to continue the fight for their legislative priorities.
Rep. DeLAY: And so if the Democrats think that we're gonna go crawl in a hole and not accomplish our agenda, I just wish they could've been a fly on the wall and seen these members come together for an incredible, a bold and aggressive agenda.
SEABROOK: But outside that meeting, the tone among Republicans was not so defiant. This indictment comes at a bad time for congressional Republicans, following poor poll numbers for their job approval and their performance on key agenda items like Social Security and immigration. The past week has also brought allegations of wrongdoing in a stock sale by the Senate majority leader. All this is weighing on minds, says Tennessee Republican Zach Wamp.
Representative ZACH WAMP (Republican, Tennessee): If the election were in six weeks, we'd be in deep trouble, but it's not. It's 13 months from now. That's a lifetime in American politics, and so I do think that it can only get better from here for us. That's the good news. But I think we're gonna have to fight like heck to maintain the majority, and I think we've known that for some time.
SEABROOK: Down the street at the White House, DeLay's indictment momentarily displaced Katrina as the hot topic in press secretary Scott McClellan's briefing. Just a few months ago, President Bush defended DeLay, calling him a great and effective leader and a friend. Yesterday, McClellan called him a good ally, but that's where he stopped, and he wouldn't respond to questions about how seriously Mr. Bush regards the indictment.
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): Go ahead.
Unidentified Reporter: Does the president take the allegation of wrongdoing seriously that Tom DeLay used the Republican National Committee as a money-laudering operation to fund local elections in Texas? That's what the grand jury is indicting him for.
Mr. McCLELLAN: That's what the legal process will proceed to address, and...
Unidentified Reporter: How seriously does the president take that allegation?
Mr. McCLELLAN: I'll tell you, Leader DeLay's office has put out a statement...
Unidentified Reporter: I'm not asking...
Mr. McCLELLAN: ...disputing the assertions. We need to let the legal process proceed, and that's what the president believes.
Unidentified Reporter: You just...
SEABROOK: And in all of yesterday's whirlwind, Democrats were hard to find. They were lying low, letting the news focus on their longtime adversary. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi released a one-sentence statement that reads, quote, "The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people."
And now today is the first day in more than a decade of Republican control of the House that Tom DeLay hasn't stood in a powerful leadership position. After his full-throated defense yesterday, he struck a poignant note.
Rep. DeLAY: These are difficult times, obviously, and to have the kind of support that was displayed in this conference of what we've been able to accomplish over the last 11 years we've been in the majority is just very heartwarming, and I greatly appreciate it.
SEABROOK: If that sounds like farewell, DeLay insists it's not. He says he will return to his post as majority leader once he deals with these charges. But that could take a year or more, and with congressional elections now a year away, the political landscape may change dramatically in the coming months, while Tom DeLay watches from the sidelines.
INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR's Andrea Seabrook, who covers Congress.
And, Andrea, a couple of other questions here. You've interviewed Tom DeLay in the past and closely followed him since. How does he respond under pressure?
SEABROOK: I have never seen him back down in any way or really even, you know, show contrition, apologize for things that might warrant it. I mean, to the contrary, DeLay has built his whole career around dealing with tense situations. This is a man who was famous for being such an excellent whip. DeLay, in many ways, thrives on just this kind of pressure.
INSKEEP: Andrea, thanks very much.
SEABROOK: You're welcome.
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