- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

Rep. Tom DeLay permanently gave up leadership of House Republicans yesterday, setting off a new leadership race that is shaping up as a referendum on the direction of the Republican Party in Congress.

“The job of majority leader is too important to be hamstrung by personal distractions,” the Texas Republican told reporters after he sent letters to his colleagues and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert informing them of his decision. He said he will remain in Congress and seek re-election in his district in November.

Mr. Hastert said leadership elections will be held the week of Jan. 30, giving candidates about three weeks to campaign to fill Mr. DeLay’s former position.

Both the acting majority leader, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, are expected to run. Unidentified sources close to Mr. Blunt last night released a list of six members who will publicly campaign for him, and a source close to Mr. Boehner countered with seven Republicans who will actively campaign on his behalf.

By running for the leader’s spot, Mr. Blunt leaves open the majority whip’s slot, and candidates were lining up to run for it as well.

A spokesman for Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, also a potential candidate, said yesterday that members have been asking him to run, though he has made no decision.

Democrats said Mr. DeLay’s announcement doesn’t end Republicans’ political peril over charges of corruption.

“By forcing out Tom DeLay, Republicans have addressed a party problem, but not the institutional problem of corruption that most troubles the American people,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

To prepare for the leadership elections, Mr. Blunt and Mr. Hastert both bowed out of a congressional delegation scheduled to leave tomorrow for a two-week trip to Asia.

Mr. DeLay had stepped aside temporarily as House Republicans’ floor leader after he was indicted in Texas on Sept. 28. He said he would clear his name and reclaim his leader’s post within months, but his situation worsened last week after lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges and agreed to tell prosecutors about his connections to members of Congress.

Mr. DeLay said he has always acted within ethics rules, but he faced falling support among the conservative activists who had been his biggest boosters. Moreover, two other Republican members of Congress — Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire and Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona — began to gather petition signatures to force new leadership elections.

“Today’s been a very good day for Republicans and our conference and Congress,” Mr. Bass said yesterday. He said the recent ethical and criminal charges have not helped Republicans or Democrats, and the leadership elections are healthy for everyone.

“This is a serious problem, this Abramoff thing, for Republicans and Democrats. But it’s not the Democrats that are leading the country right now,” he said, adding that the ethics issues will be paramount in the new leadership elections. “The standards all members should look for in the replacement leadership need to be high.”

Mr. Flake said the new elections must be about more than just new faces.

“We need to make sure this is a proper election and not just an affirmation of the interim structure,” he said, calling for a “course correction.”

While the ethics charges may have been the latest issue, Mr. Flake said there had been a growing realization among some members that under Mr. DeLay, the party had lost its way on other issues.

“I think for a lot of people they’re thinking, ‘Why are we trying so hard to keep him?’ His view has obviously changed over the years about government,” Mr. Flake said in a telephone interview before Mr. DeLay made his announcement.

Republican strategist Michael McKenna said resentment against some of Mr. DeLay’s comments last year on federal spending and the 2003 vote on adding a prescription-drug program to Medicare hurt Mr. DeLay among his conference.

“Tom DeLay’s legal problem simply provided an opportunity for that resentment to come to the front,” he said, adding that the upcoming elections will be a battle for the fundamental direction House Republicans will take.

Mr. McKenna said one figure to watch in the elections is Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who is chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group of 100 conservatives. As chairman of the RSC, Mr. Pence has become a major political force.

“A large chunk of that caucus is going to be looking to him for cues about how to think about this choice,” Mr. McKenna said.

Mr. Pence and many other Republicans released statements yesterday that praised Mr. DeLay for his three years as majority leader and eight years as majority whip and for putting the interests of the party first by stepping down.

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