Departing Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas said yesterday that House Republicans have no vision or agenda and have let the Democrats choose the GOP leadership.
“We don’t have an agreed agenda — breaking up our leadership has taken its toll,” Mr. DeLay told a small group of reporters invited to his offices in the Cannon House Office Building.
The interview came only hours after Mr. DeLay had announced in Houston that he would resign his House seat in the coming weeks, giving his party time to name someone else to stand for election from the conservative 22nd District of Texas.
The House GOP leadership “breakup” he spoke of began when he relinquished his House majority leader’s post in September after a local Democratic prosecutor won a grand jury indictment against him on campaign-finance charges. Some of his former aides and associates have been indicted or convicted on various charges, and Democrats have painted Mr. DeLay as the leader of the Republican “culture of corruption” they say they’re campaigning against.
“The only reason I was indicted [was] the stupid rule that allows the Democrats to pick the Republican leadership,” Mr. DeLay said.
He was referring to a party rule requiring that any Republican indicted for a crime give up his leadership post. Mr. DeLay has contended that is why the Democrats, who have no such rule, persuaded Ronnie Earle to seek a grand jury indictment of Mr. DeLay and keep seeking it until he got one.
Mr. DeLay maintains his innocence and told friends and supporters in Houston yesterday that he will formally resign this spring, in large part so that Democrats won’t be able to “steal” one more House seat in a critical midterm elections.
“Because I care so deeply about this district and the people in it, I refuse to allow liberal Democrats an opportunity to steal this seat with a negative, personal campaign,” he said. “As difficult as this decision has been for me, it’s not going to be a great day for liberal Democrats, either. My loyalty to the Republican Party — indeed, my love for the Republican Party — has played no small part in this decision.”
Mr. DeLay called President Bush on Monday, and they spoke while the president was flying back from Cincinnati, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.
“The president wishes Congressman DeLay all the best. He appreciates his service and thanks him for his service to the nation,” Mr. McClellan said.
When asked whether Mr. Bush regrets the decision by his key political ally, Mr. McClellan said, “The president respects his decision. This was a decision that Congressman DeLay made.”
Democrats said his resignation is just the tip of the iceberg, however, and they’ll continue to hammer away at corruption issues.
“Mr. DeLay’s departure from Congress is one piece of the changes needed to end the Republican culture of corruption,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “We need a new direction that returns the people’s house to the American people.”
Republican colleagues praised both Mr. DeLay’s aggressive, effective leadership style and his decision to step aside for the good of the party.
“His leadership helped take our Republican conference and, as a result, our nation in a new direction, and I am confident that Tom’s legacy as one of the most effective Republican leaders in a generation is assured,” said Majority Whip Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who briefly served as leader when Mr. DeLay stepped aside.
“With this decision, he has put the interests of others ahead of his own,” said Rep. David Dreier, California Republican.
Republicans were confident yesterday that a Republican will win Mr. DeLay’s seat in November. They said the decision to step down was his.
“There was never any pressure for Tom DeLay to step down. People would have stood by him,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican.
But some party members clearly breathed a sigh of relief at the news, saying Mr. DeLay’s resignation takes a key Democrat issue, one that would have been used against other Republicans, off the table. “For the tight congressional races, he will not be the poster child that he would have been if he was still in office,” said Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican.
Mr. DeLay won his primary last month, but still faced a strong challenge from Democrat Nick Lampson, a former House member. The race looked tough because of Mr. DeLay’s Texas indictment and ties to convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
House Minority Whip Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, and other Democrats said Mr. DeLay’s resignation doesn’t save Republicans from their problems.
“National Republicans want you to believe they have turned the page, but the Republican culture of putting the special interests first does not revolve around just one man,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Drug companies, insurance, oil and energy industries “still hold sway over the Republican Congress and write the legislation,” he said.
Yesterday, a determindely upbeat Mr. DeLay said also that he would devote much of his time out of Congress to “doing what I do best, strategizing for the conservative cause” and helping Republicans in the House create a “vision” for the rest of the year and beyond, including on immigration policy.
He warned that if the immigration bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Edward M. Kennedy becomes law, it “would seriously undermine our own base” and cost Republicans seats in the November elections. The House “should not conference with the Senate on something we haven’t discussed in the House.”
In his Washington interview, he said that after leaving Congress he will raise money for Republican candidates. When asked whether he could imagine eventually becoming a lobbyist for a living, he replied: “Maybe.”
Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.