Support for Tom DeLay’s returning as House majority leader is dwindling, as some of his staunchest defenders now are backing off or calling for a change for the good of the party if he does not resolve his legal problems soon.
“If Tom’s Texas situation is not resolved by early February, then I believe the House should hold new elections. If things remain unsettled, it will cause the Republican majority real trouble,” said Paul M. Weyrich, the Free Congress Foundation chairman and chief executive officer who gave what many considered the most moving testimonial at a May tribute dinner held to rally conservatives to support Mr. DeLay in the face of legal troubles.
Mr. DeLay is fighting an indictment in Texas, and some of his former aides are connected to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Mr. DeLay stepped down temporarily from his majority leader post in September to handle the Texas situation.
Yesterday, DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden insisted Mr. DeLay is on track to resolve the legal charges in Texas and return to his post early this year.
“Mr. DeLay believes his support in the Republican conference is strong because it’s clear he acted properly,” Mr. Madden said. “He remains confident that … he’ll have a full exoneration by the end of January, early February.”
Although support for Mr. DeLay initially was staunch, some in Washington say it now is eroding.
Even some House members who support him predict privately that he will not likely survive as leader.
“I don’t think he’s going to make it,” said one House Republican who asked not to be named. “He’s wounded.”
A former House leadership aide said, “The tide has been moving … in favor of leadership elections for a while,” and some are advising that Mr. DeLay could have a better chance of a lasting long-term comeback if he steps aside now.
“He can stay relevant to the conference as he has in recent months and eliminate a big headache and distraction,” the former Hill aide said.
“The situation has eroded pretty steadily since he stepped down,” said a second former House leadership aide. “From a practical standpoint, it’s ‘game on’ ” for a leadership vote.
“A political party needs leadership, and, frankly, I have been disappointed with DeLay’s leadership,” R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor in chief of the American Spectator and a sponsor of the DeLay tribute dinner, told The Washington Times in an interview.
But Cleta Mitchell, chief organizer of the DeLay tribute dinner, said she is not keen on House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, scheduling a leadership election now.
“But if the speaker feels a leadership election is important for stability’s sake, then the election should be called with a specific change in the rules requiring another election when Tom DeLay is exonerated in Texas, which I fully anticipate will happen,” she said.
Phyllis Schlafly, founder and president of the Eagle Forum, also participated in the DeLay tribute dinner, but yesterday declined to comment on whether Mr. DeLay should return as leader, saying that is for Congress to decide.
Other Republicans who attended the DeLay tribute dinner said privately yesterday that support for him is coming apart mainly because supporters think that although he may win his trial in Texas, he and his staff appear to be “so tied up by Abramoff that he may not survive,” as one DeLay loyalist said.
Still, some DeLay supporters continue to preach strongly against holding leadership elections to permanently replace Mr. DeLay.
“No,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “If and when any of the charges are proven true in a court of law against Mr. DeLay, then and only then should elections be held to replace him.”
And Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, said it’s premature to predict Mr. DeLay won’t return and that the Texan would have “momentum” to resume his post if the case is resolved in his favor.
Rep. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, has filled majority leader duties in Mr. DeLay’s absence. Another name widely circulated around Capitol Hill as a possible majority leader has been Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Spokesman Don Seymour said his boss has been approached by some members but is not making calls or actively seeking votes for a leadership bid.