- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

House Republicans elected Roy Blunt of Missouri to be their majority leader after Texas Republican Tom DeLay temporarily gave up the slot upon being indicted on a criminal conspiracy charge yesterday.

They unanimously approved Mr. Blunt’s elevation from the No. 3 slot, majority whip, to the No. 2 slot during a closed-door meeting. Afterward, Mr. Blunt said he expects to turn the job back over to Mr. DeLay.

“We all believe that he’ll return, once this indictment is out of the way,” he said.

House Republican Conference rules require a party leader who is indicted to step aside, and Mr. DeLay informed Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, of his move soon after he was indicted by a grand jury in Travis County, Texas, yesterday.

The move set other dominoes falling.

Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, California Republican, both will assume greater leadership roles, with Mr. Cantor taking over more of Mr. Blunt’s old job and Mr. Dreier taking on some of the coordinating tasks from Mr. DeLay.

Mr. Blunt won immediate praise from conservative House members and activists, who preferred him to other potential temporary successors, such as Mr. Dreier. The Family Research Council said Mr. Blunt has won the group’s “True Blue Award,” which is given to members of Congress who vote pro-life and pro-family.

Republicans said the shifts made sense.

“If you lost your commander in battle, you move people up in rank,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican. “And if he is wounded and coming back, you leave room for him.”

Mr. DeLay, who will remain a member of Congress, said he expects to be exonerated and to regain his position as majority leader, which he has used effectively to push through Republican legislation.

“It’s a political witch hunt,” said Mr. DeLay, who has earned the nickname “The Hammer” for his tenaciousness within the party. “It’s a campaign that’s been going on for over 10 years with ethics charges, with RICO suits, with now an indictment. Every charge has been dismissed, and I’m sure this indictment will also be dismissed.”

Although House Republicans sided with Mr. DeLay in accusing Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle of going too far, Republicans outside the House took a more hands-off attitude.

“I’m probably not going to contribute to the political nature of the controversy,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who said it “remains to be seen” whether he would contribute to a legal defense fund for Mr. DeLay. “I know others have, and I think they’re certainly within their rights to do that within the legal framework.”

The Texas grand jury is just one of several ongoing investigations that could affect Mr. DeLay. A probe into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff may touch on Mr. DeLay.

Mr. DeLay has said he wants the House ethics committee to investigate Democrats’ unofficial complaints about whether he took overseas trips in violation of House rules, saying such a probe would vindicate him and remove the suspicions hanging over him.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee immediately started raising money based on the indictment.

“The poetic justice of DeLay being indicted on the very anniversary of the self-righteous Contract With America will go down in history as one of the most spectacular falls in American politics and the closing chapter in the so-called ‘Republican Revolution,’ ” said John Lapp, executive director of the DCCC.

But some Democrats said they must be cautious about going too far.

“I’m not sure the public is sophisticated enough to view this as a Republican wrongdoing rather than a crooked Congress,” said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat. “We have to be very careful with how we handle this.”

Mr. DeLay also faces a hurdle at home. Former Rep. Nick Lampson, a Texas Democrat who lost his seat in 2004 because of the newly drawn legislative map, announced earlier this year that he would run against Mr. DeLay.

Mr. DeLay won 55 percent of the vote in last year’s election — slightly down from previous elections. But Stuart Roy, who served until the beginning of this year as Mr. DeLay’s communications director, said Mr. DeLay wouldn’t lose.

“No way. It’s a 57 percent Republican performance district,” he said, adding that last time around Mr. DeLay won after having been admonished three times by the House ethics committee and with three political colleagues under indictment.

Mr. DeLay went on Texas talk radio in the afternoon to talk about the charges.

Asked by Chris Baker at KTRH, a Houston station that reaches Mr. DeLay’s district, who would win a fistfight between Mr. Earle and Mr. DeLay, the congressman said, “I don’t know. He’s pretty old. I’m a young fighter. I’ve been fighting for 20 years.”

Amy Fagan, Charles Hurt and Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.

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