Tom DeLay times exit for impact

The former House majority leader wants to help his party keep his Texas seat and rob Democrats of an advantage.

Published April 4, 2006

WASHINGTON - John Boehner popped two Advils, chose a bright green tie to cheer himself up, then came to work at the U.S. Capitol to face the topic the Republicans were immediately weary of: the resignation of Tom DeLay, former majority leader, the spiritual leader of the House and mastermind of the Republican dominance.

DeLay's announcement Tuesday morning that he would resign his Texas seat, to improve the chances that it stays in Republican hands, allowed many of his colleagues to express their sadness and their admiration for him, then breathe a sigh of relief and try to change the subject.

Since his indictment last fall in Texas on campaign finance-related charges, followed by the guilty pleas of two key staffers and lobbyist Jack Abramoff in a federal corruption investigation, the extraordinary devotion that many GOP members of the House felt toward DeLay had ebbed.

For most Republicans, DeLay's resignation announcement wasn't bad news; in several ways, it marked a tactical victory. But they are eager to move on, as Democrats increasingly use DeLay and the scandals surrounding him to hammer Republican House candidates nationwide.

DeLay himself, who dedicated his career to securing the Republican majority in the House, perhaps understood that sentiment better than anyone. Recent polls showed him running even with his Democratic challenger, in a district that is solidly Republican and should never be up for grabs.

"I refuse to allow liberal Democrats an opportunity to steal this seat with a negative personal campaign," DeLay, 58, who spent 21 years in the House, said at a news conference in Houston. "The voters . . . deserve a campaign about the vital national issues that they care most about and not a campaign focused solely as a referendum on me."

Chatting with reporters Tuesday morning, at the same glossy wooden conference table where DeLay used to sit, under the same giant flat-screen TV, Majority Leader Boehner, R-Ohio, made a brief statement about his predecessor's value in moving the conservative agenda in the House. "I'm sorry he's leaving," he said.

Then he moved on to discuss a budget bill being considered this week and a bill aimed at limiting the activities of outside groups, called 527s, that raised millions of dollars in the last election. He touted the House GOP's package of bills aimed at ethics and lobbying reform (another legacy of DeLay's tribulations) and reports that seniors are starting to like the new Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.

When he finished, reporters returned to DeLay.

Why did he quit?

His re-election was in jeopardy, "and I think he did a very honorable thing by stepping aside," Boehner said.

Would the lobby reform package have stopped the excesses that led to DeLay's downfall? "We will take the steps necessary to plug the gaps."

A reporter then asked about the 527s bill.

"Thank you!" Boehner said to laughter.

But the reporters pulled him back to DeLay.

Later, at a scheduled press conference with Boehner, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and others, each briefly mentioned DeLay, then talked about the budget, border security and lobbying reform. After less than six minutes, the leaders wheeled around and left without taking questions.

The featured speaker, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, didn't show, even though he had called the news conference.

Amy Walter, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said the Republicans' strategy is "just to make it sound like old news: Okay, he's done, gone, boom, we're moving on, this is not going to tie us up in knots."

Until he leaves, however, that may be as tough as DeLay himself. DeLay's resignation marks the end of an era. More than any other sitting member, he is responsible for helping win historic gains for Republicans and for pushing a conservative social agenda.

He helped create a symbiotic relationship between the House Republicans and Washington's lobbying community, ensuring a steady flow of donations for his members and friendly legislation for business interests.

But his brash style - he was known as the Hammer - and K Street connections also invited scrutiny and criticism that those with issues before Congress had to pay to play. DeLay's resignation came just days after Tony Rudy, his former deputy chief of staff, pleaded guilty to conspiring with Abramoff to bribe public officials while he served in DeLay's office.

While DeLay has not been implicated, it put him in the unenviable position of having to admit he knew or suspected something, yet did nothing, or that he was clueless about what was happening in his own office. He had stepped down as majority leader in January after Abramoff pleaded guilty in the federal corruption probe.

DeLay has maintained his innocence. In typical fashion, he remained defiant during his announcement Tuesday and is resigning on his own terms: He will stay in office until late May or June.

He waited until after he won the Republican primary, to prevent any of his three challengers from winning the right to run for his seat. And he is expected to have a big say in whomever Republican insiders tap to run in his place.

"It's classic Tom DeLay. He is going to turn the tables once again on the Democrats," said Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican from Palm Beach County. "The temporary joy that they're feeling will fade when they realize a Republican will probably take the seat now."

At the same time, DeLay's resignation robs the Democrats of one of its central weapons, that House Republicans are caught in DeLay's "culture of corruption."

Another conservative icon took a similar tack in 1998, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich, under assault by GOP conservatives and used as a bogeyman by Democrats, announced he would resign. In 2002, New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, a Democrat tainted by allegations of illegal donations and gifts, abandoned his re-election bid to avoid losing his seat to the Republicans. His Democratic replacement, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, won.

DeLay's exit will leave just one member of the leadership team from the Republican takeover of 1994: Boehner, whom House Republicans picked in February to replace him. He chuckled when asked about that Tuesday.

"I'm the last man standing."