- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The big political question for Republicans nowadays is whether they will take a hit in the midterm elections for the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

As this is written, the evidence was scant it will have very much effect, if any, on how Americans will vote nearly 10 months from now. But no doubt the whole sordid mess is dramatically changing the House Republican leadership lineup, its reform agenda and how D.C. lobbying is done.

As things stand now, there will be a new House Republican leader to take Tom DeLay’s place permanently, as he battles an indictment on campaign money-laundering charges, and a new House Republican whip, a pivotal post in the party hierarchy.

At the same time, House Speaker Dennis Hastert plans to bring forth some of the toughest House ethics rules in modern memory to rein in the too-often cozy relationship between members of Congress, lobbyists and their money. That will be followed by legislation to toughen the laws governing lobbying, reporting requirements, penalties and enforcement.

The word has come from Mr. Hastert this scandal will be nuked by the Republican leadership before it further undermines the public confidence in the integrity of the Republican-run Congress. Mr. DeLay’s decision to step down from the leadership was the first step in that process.

Party leaders expect further possible repercussions if Abramoff points at members of Congress who received campaign funding from him or his associates and later did favors for his clients. Could that have a ripple effect throughout the party in the fall elections? Republican campaign strategists don’t think so.

“The bottom line is that the only people who potentially can be harmed by this are only those who are actually found guilty,” said Carl Forti, the National Republican Congressional Committee communications director. “I don’t know any member of Congress who lost because of something another member did or did not do,” Mr. Forti told me.

Still, public cynicism about Congress’ honesty and ethics is high in the wake of Abramoff’s guilty pleas on charges of tax evasion, fraud and corruption charges. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed this week 58 percent now think the case is “evidence of widespread corruption in Washington,” versus 34 percent who say it is “limited to a few corrupt individuals.”

But few Americans blame Republicans alone for the scandal. Nearly three-fourths say “There isn’t much difference between [the two parties] when it comes to ethics and honesty.”

There is a slew of generic polls, however, that find more Americans saying they will vote Democratic this year, but generic polls, not based on actual candidates, are notoriously inaccurate. The same polls projected similar results in 2004 and 2002 when in fact Republicans made gains in Congress.

Nevertheless, veteran election pollsters have sent notes of warning to both parties in the unfolding scandal.

“Generic polls are not predictive at all at this point, but it’s a good indicator of the general mood of the country at this point,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

“Voters will make distinctions about their own representatives and senators, regarding their own actions in connection with Mr. Abramoff. But the problem is the image of Congress, which is not healthy at the moment and which is likely to take another Democratic hit,” he said.

Democrats are vulnerable on this score, too. “The Democrats’ tendency to portray the Republican Congress as the most corrupt in years could backfire on them because clearly that opens the door to Democrats who have received money from Abramoff,” independent pollster John Zogby told me.

But most scandals are not born and do not grow in a political vacuum. There are always competing issues and factors. This is an election year with a lot of them — and big ones, too.

Pollsters I talked to in the last week tell me Iraq will have a much bigger effect on how people vote in November, along with the U.S. economy, gas prices and even the stock market.

In other words, whatever happens in the lobbying scandal, it will have to compete with some potential developments this year on several Republican-friendly fronts: The likelihood of troop withdrawals from Iraq as the Iraqi army strength grows, the Fed’s expected imminent decision to halt the interest rate rise, a stock-market bull rally boosting pension funds and a job-producing economy expected to grow 31/2 percent this year.

Meanwhile, the year’s first big political battle does not bode well for the Democrats’ future prospects. They came out this week with both guns blazing against Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

But the Post-ABC poll showed 53 percent of Americans believe the Senate should confirm Judge Alito, 27 percent said they should not do so and 20 percent have no opinion. Not an auspicious start for the Democrats and maybe an omen of how the 2006 elections could turn out.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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