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Archive for Friday, September 30, 2005

Reach for power was Delay’s downfall

September 30, 2005

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In Washington, it's often said, what goes around comes around. We've seen it with powerful Democrats such as former Speaker Jim Wright and Republicans like onetime White House chief of staff John Sununu.

On Wednesday, it was House Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay's turn, as the Texas congressman was forced to, at least temporarily, surrender his House leadership after being indicted in Austin on a single count of criminal conspiracy.

Most likely, the indictment of DeLay, who propelled himself from the back benches of the minority to become this town's second most powerful Republican, ends his hopes of ever becoming House speaker or wielding the kind of power he has brandished for the past several years.

Ironically, DeLay was brought down by a party rule that Republicans initially enacted to contrast their adherence to the proprieties with the allegedly lower standards of the Democrats.

In a larger sense, he fell victim to his own efforts to continually expand his own power.

For most of the past decade, DeLay has been the driving force behind the multipronged effort by which the Republicans, after taking House control under Newt Gingrich's leadership, solidified their majority and created a financial and political machine to maintain control and push their conservative agenda. In so doing, he's ridden roughshod over Democrats both inside and outside the House.

Early on, DeLay was tabbed as a comer by reporters who covered Congress, a relatively junior member on whom they counted for accurate guidance on what was really going down.

Then, as GOP majority whip, he kept the counts and marshaled the troops as the Republican majority rushed to pass the conservative cornerstones of its Contract with America. And he joined with his friend Grover Norquist to create the K Street Project, pressuring Washington lobbyists to raise money for the Republicans.

When Gingrich quit after unexpected GOP losses in November 1998, DeLay decided against seeking the top spot and installed his deputy, Dennis Hastert. Instead, he used his growing clout with Republican lobbyists to threaten trade groups that considered giving key jobs to Democrats. He sprinkled former staff members throughout the city's lobbying community, creating what The New Republic's John Judis called "a network of lobbyists, political consultants and conservative activists who did his bidding."

Though President Bush kept DeLay at arm's length during the 2000 campaign, he soon discovered his fellow Texan was a necessary ally in passing legislation because he was able to enforce the discipline that enabled House Republicans to pass bill after bill despite their modest majority.

He did so by using his power to reward friends, punish foes, bottle up ethics charges filed by Democratic foes and, where needed, use whatever means necessary to muscle measures through the House.

Outside Congress, DeLay worked to ensure that congressional redistricting after the 2000 census helped Republicans keep control.

He encouraged GOP-controlled legislatures in Michigan and Pennsylvania to redraw the lines to create GOP majorities and, in Texas, masterminded the effort that turned its longtime congressional and legislative Democratic majorities into GOP margins. A crucial part of that strategy was electing the first GOP-controlled state House of Representatives in a century. After a bitter months-long battle, it passed a redistricting bill, turning an evenly balanced House delegation into one with a 21-11 GOP majority.

But the financing of that campaign got DeLay into trouble. Wednesday's indictment stemmed from charges of the illegal raising of corporate funds by Texans for a Republican Majority, the group that he and right-hand man Jim Ellis created to fund the election of state legislators.

Even if he is ultimately cleared, this may not end DeLay's legal troubles, pending results of an ongoing federal probe into activities of his friend, frequent traveling companion and fellow GOP activist, lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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