WASHINGTON – House Republicans, moving to protect their powerful leader, Tom DeLay, voted Wednesday to change a decade-old party rule so the Texan could keep his post even if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury.
DeLay, a 10-term congressman famous for his aggressive tactics and brash style, has not been indicted, but a Texas prosecutor indicted three of his aides this year for allegedly soliciting illegal campaign contributions and funneling the money to House races in 2002.
Holed up behind closed doors in a Capitol Hill office building, with just a handful dissenting, Republicans made the change after deliberating several hours on the 1993 rule, which forced any leader facing a felony indictment carrying a sentence of two years or more to relinquish his post. Under the revision, a group of senior Republicans would review any felony indictment and could recommend that a leader be allowed to retain his position.
Democrats decried the rule-change as evidence that Republicans had become drunk with power.
But DeLay said the action was necessary because of what he has called a politically motivated campaign by the prosecutor, Democrat Ronnie Earle.
Wednesday’s rule change amounted to a resounding vote of GOP confidence in DeLay, an exterminator-turned-lawmaker whose popularity in his party is surpassed only by his notoriety among Democrats.
A House ethics panel rebuked DeLay, 57, this year for three separate incidents, including trying to coerce a colleague to vote for the Medicare overhaul by offering to endorse his son; hosting a fund-raiser attended by executives interested in an energy measure on which he was a chief negotiator; and asking the Federal Aviation Administration to get involved in a Texas political dispute.
In 1999, the ethics panel privately scolded DeLay for threatening a trade association for hiring a Democrat instead of a Republican as its lobbyist.
Two government ethics watchdog groups, Common Cause and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, issued a joint statement calling Wednesday’s vote “arrogant, hypocritical and in defiance of the most basic ethical guidelines to which elected officials should adhere.”