Delay Asks House Panel to Review Judges
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG, New York Times
April 14, 2005
WASHINGTON, April 13 - Deflecting all questions about his ethical conduct and political future, Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, on Wednesday stepped up his crusade against judges, announcing that he had instructed the Judiciary Committee to investigate federal court decisions in the Terri Schiavo case and to recommend possible legislation.
At a crowded news conference, Mr. DeLay said he would not entertain questions about his political activities. It was his first question-and-answer session with reporters since one fellow Republican, Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, called for him to resign his leadership post and another, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, said he should explain himself to the American people.
"I'm not here to discuss the Democrats' agenda," Mr. DeLay declared.
He has asserted that Democrats and the "liberal media" are orchestrating a campaign to discredit him by raising questions about possible ethics violations, including overseas travel financed by outside groups.
But the questions persisted. Mr. Gingrich, who in a television interview Tuesday said Mr. DeLay seemed to be blaming a left-wing conspiracy, told a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Wednesday that the majority leader must ultimately "brief the country in a public way."
"He and his lawyers have to decide when that is," Mr. Gingrich said. "But he at some point has got to convince people that what he has done was reasonable and authentic and legitimate."
Mr. DeLay was also a topic at the White House press briefing, where Scott McClellan, President Bush's spokesman, said the president supported what Mr. DeLay and other Congressional leaders were doing "to move forward on the agenda that the American people want us to enact."
But Mr. McClellan suggested that the relationship between Mr. Bush and Mr. DeLay, a fellow Texan, was more business than social.
"Sure," Mr. McClellan said, when asked if the president considered Mr. DeLay a friend. He went on, "I think there are different levels of friendship with anybody."
Mr. DeLay, the No. 2 House Republican, has been embroiled in ethics controversies for months, ever since a grand jury in Texas indicted some of his top operatives. But the spotlight has intensified in recent weeks since he led Congress to intervene in the case of Ms. Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who died after her feeding tube was withdrawn by court order.
Despite the unusual Congressional legislation, several federal courts refused to reopen the Schiavo case, enraging Mr. DeLay and other Republicans.
Mr. DeLay's subsequent criticisms of the courts - at one point he suggested that the judges responsible could be impeached and at another point said that they would be held responsible - have brought ridicule from Democrats. They have also prompted some prominent Republicans, including Mr. Bush and Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, to distance themselves from him.
Asked last week about Mr. DeLay's attacks on judges, Mr. Bush would only say that he believed in an independent judiciary, in a system of checks and balances, in judges who strictly interpreted the Constitution.
On Wednesday, Mr. DeLay seemed to adopt the president's language: "Of course I believe in an independent judiciary," he said. He also apologized for the impeachment comment, even as he insisted it was well within the purview of Congress to rein in the courts.
"Sometimes I get a little more passionate," Mr. DeLay said, "particularly during the moment and the day that Terri Schiavo was starved to death. Emotions were flowing."
"I said something in an inartful way," he added, "and I shouldn't have said it that way, and I apologize. I apologize for saying it that way. It was taken wrong, and I didn't explain or clarify my remarks as I'm clarifying them here."
Mr. DeLay was not specific about what legislative changes, if any, he would like to see emerge from the Judiciary Committee's review. But in announcing that he had asked Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican and the committee chairman, to examine the actions of federal judges in the Schiavo case, Mr. DeLay said the House had previously passed legislation limiting the jurisdiction of the courts and breaking up the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a bill that died in the Senate.
"We set the jurisdiction of the courts," Mr. DeLay said. "We set up the courts. We can unset the courts."
As to the ethics questions, Mr. DeLay repeated that he was "more than happy" to have the House ethics committee review those issues. But it cannot do so because the committee is embroiled in a fight over rules changes that critics say will discourage ethics inquiries. Democrats, upset that Republicans adopted the changes without their cooperation, are refusing to constitute the committee this session. The panel met Wednesday to try to resolve the impasse, but was unsuccessful.
"We're trying to find some common ground," said the chairman, Representative Doc Hastings, Republican of Washington. "We have been talking. As long as we can talk, I tend to be an optimist."
Democrats, meanwhile, sharply criticized the ethics rule changes on Wednesday at a news conference that featured Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, and the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. Ms. Pelosi warned that House Republicans, who rode to power in 1994 by portraying Democrats as arrogant, had become arrogant. "I have said for a long time their greed will be their downfall," she said.
At least one Republican, Mr. Shays, seemed to agree on Wednesday. "I'm no fan of Nancy Pelosi," he said. But, he added, "we said we would be different and we were when we started out. We are quickly becoming like they were when they were in the majority."