Departing Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, says any of three colleagues could some day assume his role as leader of conservatives in the House.
Asked who might be the House’s “next Tom DeLay,” the former majority leader, once considered the most powerful Republican in Congress, named three Republicans: Rep. Adam H. Putnam of Florida, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina.
When told of Mr. DeLay’s remarks, Mr. Pence said simply, “I accept the compliment.”
Mr. McHenry said, “I’m blown away … I’m so excited that Tom DeLay would say that about me.”
Overlooked by Mr. DeLay were more than 100 other conservative-voting House Republicans, some of whom are known beyond their home districts and even their states.
The Texas Republican also says he is leaving government “to do what I do best — lead the conservative movement” and raise money for Republican candidates. He responded with the single word “maybe” when asked whether he could imagine becoming a lobbyist for a living.
Mr. DeLay made the comments in an on-the-record meeting with a few journalists in his office last week after announcing he would resign his House seat in time for his party to choose someone else to run for election in the 22nd District in November.
Mr. Putnam, a young-looking 31-year-old, was first elected to the House in 2000. Mr. Pence, 45, whom colleagues describe as a gifted writer and speaker, is the most widely known of the three. Mr. McHenry, 32, is a freshman elected to Congress in 2004 after having been a member of the North Carolina House.
Mr. Pence has headed the 100-plus member House Republican Study Committee since September 2004 and is credited with turning the RSC from a caucus of House conservatives into what is now widely regarded as recent history’s largest and most powerful coalition of Republican lawmakers who espouse limited government and individual freedom.
Regardless of the title he held at any given time, Mr. DeLay was regarded by colleagues in both parties as the real wielder of power in the Republican-controlled House after the departure of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
During the meeting in his offices in the Cannon House Office Building, Mr. DeLay went out of his way to defend his friend Ed Buckham, a lobbyist who had been chief of staff when Mr. DeLay was majority whip, and who has been implicated in the Abramoff scandal.
“What I’ve read about Ed Buckham, he’s done nothing wrong or illegal,” Mr. DeLay said.
However, when the subject moved to Tony Rudy, the former DeLay aide who pleaded guilty last week to having conspired with Abramoff to corrupt public officials and cheat clients, Mr. DeLay said, “for every Tony Rudy, I’ve had 50 [staffers] who left me” with their integrity intact.
Most often mentioned by Republicans in and out of Congress as today’s “rising stars” in the House are Mr. Pence, and Reps. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, John Shadegg and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Pete Sessions of Texas.
In one issue that splits the three DeLay-anointed conservatives, Mr. Pence voted against restricting contributions to nonprofit 527 groups that liberal Democrats such as George Soros have used for voter mobilization and issue advertisements. Citing a desire to “level the playing field” in campaign-finance spending, Mr. McHenry and Mr. Putnam joined the Republican majority in voting for the bill, which passed 218-209.
Mr. Pence voted no, along with Mr. Shadegg and a small band of other conservative Republicans. They had opposed the 2002 McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign-finance spending as abridgements of free speech, and now say it is hypocritical for members of their own party who also opposed McCain-Feingold to support a similar assault on free speech in the form of the 527 bill.