President Supports DeLay as Investigations Widen
By ELISABETH BUMILLER, New York Times
March 17, 2005
WASHINGTON, March 16 - President Bush expressed crucial support on Wednesday for Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, who is facing growing inquiries here and his home state, Texas, over accusations of illegal fund-raising and improper ties to lobbyists.
"I have confidence in Tom DeLay's leadership and I have confidence in Tom DeLay," Mr. Bush said at a news conference at the White House that touched on domestic issues like increasing gasoline prices and overhauling Social Security.
"We've worked closely with Tom DeLay and the leaders in the House to get a lot done during the last four years," Mr. Bush said. "And I'm looking forward to working with him to get a lot done during the next four years."
The support for Mr. DeLay, a Republican from Sugar Land, is crucial for his political survival as House Republicans nervously watch how he handles the scrutiny of his legal troubles.
Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, was deposed as majority leader after Mr. Bush criticized him for racially charged comments that Mr. Lott made in 2002.
A Texas grand jury has indicted two of Mr. DeLay's associates on charges involving illegal campaign contributions. In Washington, the Justice Department and a Senate committee are investigating lobbying for Indian tribes by a prominent Republican consultant tied to Mr. DeLay and Mr. DeLay's former spokesman, who now works in public relations.
On Capitol Hill, the senior Democrat on the House ethics panel said he did not believe that the committee could consider Mr. DeLay's request to review his travel records for improprieties until an impasse that has paralyzed the panel has been resolved.
"I don't think we can move forward on any matter where a member is at risk of sanction unless we are duly constituted," the Democrat, Representative Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, said.
Mr. Mollohan is refusing to allow the committee to conduct business until Republicans rescind new rules that could make it harder to pursue misconduct investigations.
Hoping to dispel accusations that he broke House rules on two trips underwritten by groups outside Congress, Mr. DeLay offered on Tuesday to sit down with the leaders of the ethics panel to explain why he considered those assertions unfounded.
Mr. DeLay also opposes overturning the new ethics rules, saying they will prevent the committee from being used for partisan attacks.
His spokesman, Dan Allen, said that those two positions were not at odds.
"The majority leader made it clear that he wants to sit down with the chairman and Congressman Mollohan to get the facts out and dispel the fiction that is out there right now," Mr. Allen said. "He also wants to make sure the House has a working ethics committee. It seems the only people who do not want to move forward are the Democrats."
Separately, Republican officials said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert used a private session with lawmakers to encourage them to remain solidly behind the new rules, as well.
"I don't want ethics to be a political football on one side or another," Mr. Hastert later told reporters.
At the news conference, Mr. Bush said he was concerned about the effects of high gasoline prices on households and small businesses and urged Congress to pass his energy proposals.
Later, a major component of the proposals, the long-delayed plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, cleared a major hurdle when the Senate voted to include it in its budget bills. The vote does not ensure that drilling will ultimately be approved, but proponents of the drilling said it gave them a good chance.
Mr. Bush appeared nervous at first but seemed to relax at the 48-minute news conference in a crowded and sweltering press briefing room. As is the White House habit, electronic pages' announcing the news conference went out to reporters a little more than an hour before it started. Mr. Bush's reason for calling the session appeared to be to put a positive stamp on developments in the Mideast and at home before he left for a 10-day Easter break in Texas. The president is also to campaign for his Social Security proposals in the South and the West.
Mr. Bush said more explicitly than in the past that his plan to create individual investment accounts would not solve the long-term problems of Social Security, but that the accounts were worthwhile nonetheless.
"Personal accounts do not permanently fix the solution," he said. "They make the solution more attractive for the individual worker, and that's important for people to understand."
The president ignored a question about whether he would be willing to drop the private accounts from his plan in exchange for a negotiated deal with Democrats on benefits cuts and tax increases to assure the solvency of Social Security.
He did say, in answer to a question about when he wanted to see Congress act on the issue, that he hoped it would be "as quickly as possible, whatever that means."
Mr. Bush suggested that he expected the debate to continue.
"I'm not going to go away on the issue, because the issue's not going to go away," he said. "Listen, I fully understand it's a difficult issue. Otherwise, it would have been solved a long time ago. And I understand some members don't, you know, view this as a tough vote. In other words, you know, why did you bring it up?"
He also said he would not propose a more detailed plan, as Democrats would like, because Congress would reject it.
"The first bill on the Hill is always dead on arrival," Mr. Bush said. "I'm interested in coming up with a permanent solution. I'm not interested in playing political games."
He also appeared sympathetic to the Republican threat to change Senate rules and eliminate the chance to filibuster judicial nominees. Democrats have used filibusters to prevent votes on the Senate floor for 10 of Mr. Bush's 214 nominees.
On Tuesday, Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is the majority leader, called Mr. Bush "drunk with power" in light of the Republican threat.
Mr. Bush said on Wednesday: "I believe that I have an obligation to put forth good, honorable people to serve on the bench, and have done so, and I expect them to get an up-or-down vote on the floor of Senate. I don't think it's fair to the administration for this policy to go forward."
He ended the news conference as the briefing room grew increasingly overheated.
"Whoever thought about modernizing this room deserves a lot of credit," Mr. Bush said. "Like there's very little oxygen in here anymore."