Sunday, December 19, 2004

There was a day last month, as Congress wrapped up its work for the year, when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay showed what it is about him that infuriates his political opponents -- and also leaves them in awe.

Despite criticism, DeLay undaunted

Personal skills and powerful allies help keep him at top of House

By GEBE MARTINEZ, Houston Chronicle
Dec 19, 2004

WASHINGTON - There was a day last month, as Congress wrapped up its work for the year, when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay showed what it is about him that infuriates his political opponents _ and also leaves them in awe.

During a news conference that morning, DeLay, R-Sugar Land, managed to turn the scrutiny of an ethics investigation away from himself and toward his Democratic accuser, Rep. Chris Bell of Houston.

Ignoring his three recent admonishments by the House ethics committee regarding potential abuse of power, partly based on Bell's complaint, a defiant DeLay instead pointed to the panel's finding that Bell broke House rules by exaggerating some claims.

DeLay proclaimed himself exonerated and the victim of an attempt at political revenge. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California called him "delusional."

By nightfall, he had moved on, scoring a major victory by squeezing out of resistant fellow lawmakers the $16.2 billion requested by the White House for NASA. How he got the money for a new part of his congressional district is testament to the backing he got from President Bush, his close alliance with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and his own legislative prowess, amplified by his position as the second-highest-ranking House Republican.

DeLay showed that day in November how he has been affected, or unaffected, by the ongoing questioning of his political activities.

He is neither humbled nor fighting for political survival. Just the opposite.

Rallying point

DeLay's battles with political opponents have become a cause for conservative House Republicans, who have solidified his position as majority leader.

A Travis County grand jury has been probing a campaign financing committee he created.

Republicans recently changed party rules, removing a requirement that would have forced DeLay to automatically give up his leadership post if he were indicted in Texas. DeLay and the GOP leadership also plan to change House rules in January to make it harder for members to file ethics complaints.

As the NASA issue proved, DeLay also remains a formidable legislator. As Congress and the White House begin crafting plans to overhaul Social Security, the tax code and immigration, DeLay will be at the critical center of those negotiations, advancing the principles of the party's core conservative base.

The White House is well aware of that.

A buzz recently swept through Washington when DeLay reportedly told Bush aides he prefers taking up tax code simplification before a Social Security overhaul, a reversal of the administration's priorities.

DeLay also backs a national retail sales tax in lieu of the income tax.

Still, even as DeLay maintains an air of invincibility as majority leader, many House Republicans said privately that the swirling questions about his political work are testing the limits of his influence.

They consider the chances of his being indicted remote, but some say the possibility has pierced DeLay's job security.

Also, unlike when he ran for majority leader, sewing up the job in a matter of hours, DeLay would have a tough race on his hands if he tries to follow Hastert as speaker, Republicans said.

"We are rich in talent," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio. "There will be a lot of wonderful candidates, and Tom DeLay will be one of them."

Redistricting questions

The main source of his latest political troubles _ his successful campaign to have Texas lawmakers redistrict the state's congressional seats for this year's election _ is also a huge reason DeLay is in good standing with House Republicans.

They are mindful that, had it not been for the resulting six-seat increase in the Texas GOP House delegation, the party would have suffered a net loss of House seats in the November election, Bush's popularity notwithstanding.

"People look at that as pulling a rabbit out of the hat," said House Appropriations subcommittee Chairman James Walsh, R-N.Y.

But the focus of the grand jury investigation in Austin is how redistricting came about. The use of corporate contributions to the state legislative campaigns of Republicans expected to back DeLay's redistricting plan is under scrutiny.

Three DeLay associates involved with the fund-raising effort have been indicted. DeLay has not been named as a target of the investigation, which continues under the staff of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat.

The redistricting caused Bell to lose in the Democratic primary, and he later filed numerous charges against DeLay with the ethics committee, emphasizing allegations of improper campaign fund raising. The panel admonished DeLay on two counts, on top of another scolding it had issued in an unrelated case.

Many Republicans agree with DeLay's assertion that the investigations in Washington and Texas are mere political attacks by Democrats, fueled by a liberal media bias.

Earle is "an overly partisan prosecutor in a small town in Texas trying to bring down a leader," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.

Earle has rejected the charge, pointing out that he has prosecuted Democrats and Republicans alike on charges of wrongdoing in office.

Still, the closed-door decision by Republicans to protect DeLay from a possible indictment was opposed by almost a fourth of the lawmakers, who argued the party was reversing an ethical standard it set 11 years ago when it gained control and promised to do better than Democrats.

DeLay should have thanked members for their support, then rejected the change and reminded them of the need to maintain their 1993 reforms, said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who voted no. "If he had done that, his stock would have soared."

The White House, meanwhile, distanced itself from the controversy.

Loyal supporters

As the only remaining member of the GOP leadership team that took control of the House in 1995 _ he served eight years as House whip before becoming majority leader two years ago _ DeLay stands out as the leader with the most loyal followers.

His allies credit his strategic political mind and a tough negotiating stance that earned him the nickname "The Hammer" with lawmakers and lobbyists.

Though his combative reputation can intimidate foes, House members point to a softer side that comes through in his dealings with them.

He studies members, knowing their likes and dislikes, whether they smoke, stay up late or have personal issues, and if they want to run for higher office, said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio. "Even if you are a high-maintenance member, he will stand there and look into your eyes. If he cannot help you, he will tell you why and look you in the face."

Moderates who do not always agree with him on policy praise his keen awareness of members' political needs. "He's working all the time, and he's always raising money for members," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.

"You see him out there furthering the majority. One of the ways he does it is through political tactics. He's not breaking the law. He does it very legally. It's just creative work," said Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., who is retiring this year.

But his creativity has courted controversy.

His fund-raising activities include the committee he created for the Texas races, his support for congressional Republicans, his nonprofit charity for foster children that can receive anonymous donations from corporations and individuals, and his legal defense fund, set up in 2000 to answer allegations of ethics violations.

His legal trust recently returned $3,500 in improper contributions in 2001 from two registered lobbyists. The apparent violation was just discovered by a public interest group.

In his legislative work, DeLay already has shown his ability to mesh the White House's policy goals with those of the House conservatives who keep him in power.

When the House took up major Medicare changes in 2003, DeLay encouraged fiscal conservatives to hold out for a law that would give private health insurance companies the incentive to compete for Medicare dollars.

Then, when the day came to pass the bill, which did not fully satisfy the conservatives, he scrambled with the rest of the leadership to find the votes.

The House passed the bill by one vote after some controversial arm-twisting by DeLay and other House leaders.

Lawmakers also noted DeLay's deftness when House leaders called for a vote on an intelligence overhaul bill recommended by the Sept. 11 commission _ a measure Bush pushed at the end despite conservative opposition.

"He said, 'I'm for this. But ... ,' " recalled Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. "His job inherently says he has to move the legislation, so he's dancing around."

Once the House passed the bill, DeLay publicly reaffirmed lawmakers would vote early next year on immigration provisions that conservatives failed to get into the intelligence bill.

"We're in the majority. We can fix these things," DeLay said confidently.

White House issues

DeLay is seen as working more closely with Vice President Dick Cheney than with the president, as the White House clearly relies on him and Hastert to move its legislation.

Sometimes, DeLay will drive an issue before the president is ready.

He was ahead of the administration in making public pronouncements in 2002 on going to war with Iraq, and he has nudged Bush into a more aggressive defense of Israel.

DeLay recently objected to the White House's decision to send $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority after Yasser Arafat's death.

The administration viewed the aid as its commitment to peace in the Middle East, but DeLay wanted the Palestinians to first show signs of reforms.

Usually, what DeLay wants, he gets, as the NASA issue proved.

Last summer, when House appropriators cut NASA's proposed spending by $1.1 billion, DeLay met with Bush.

If the president was serious about his ambitious space exploration plan, which had wavering support on Capitol Hill, now was the time to show it, DeLay said.

Within hours, the White House sent a letter to lawmakers, threatening a veto of the spending bill if NASA's funding fell short.

Then in November, with the backing of the president and Hastert, DeLay vowed to hold up a mammoth $388 billion appropriations bill and Congress' adjournment for the year if NASA did not get its money.

House and Senate negotiators came through by ordering across-the-board spending cuts in most government agencies.

Walsh, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA, said the agency was virtually the only one to get extra funds at the last minute, "because of the help of Tom."

Next year, when the House votes on a national retail tax, a balanced budget amendment and other pet projects of House Republicans, DeLay will get the credit, said Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

"He's going to stay majority leader as long as he wants to be majority leader."