WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has launched a defiant response to attacks on his ethics and leadership, even as the controversy threatens to compete with the Republican legislative agenda when Congress returns this week from spring recess.
As criticism of the 57-year-old Texan intensified last week with a blast from the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board and unveiling of an anti-DeLay television ad campaign by nonprofit groups, he began a counterattack to shore up his backing in the Republican House caucus and among social conservatives.
In a meeting with the heads of several conservative organizations, DeLay sought support in a fight he said was aimed at ending the GOP majority in Congress and thwarting the social conservative movement.
Democrats are promising to quickly bring up ethical questions surrounding DeLay when Congress comes back to work today. And the concern among some Republicans is that DeLay may step into a political trap by fiercely responding.
Democrats, Republicans say, are determined to further raise DeLay’s national political profile. And DeLay is not the sort of politician to seek to lower his profile in the face of conflict.
“He draws energy from these fights,” said one GOP strategist. “He sees this in terms of good and evil: He is all good, and his opponents are all evil.”
Until now, one House Republican leadership aide said, DeLay’s problems have not been serious enough to distract the caucus from its efforts to push forward President Bush’s legislative agenda.
“But it could very possibly become a distraction” in the coming week, said the aide, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
On Thursday, DeLay underscored his role as one of the social movement’s more prominent political leaders, issuing a hard-edged reaction to the death of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband won a long court battle to have her feeding tube removed.
DeLay, who had led the fight in Congress to pass legislation designed to force Schiavo’s case into the federal courts, warned that “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior,” a reference to what social conservatives saw as the failure of the judicial system to save Schiavo.
Later, at a news conference in his Texas district, DeLay said Schiavo’s death “will not be in vain,” and that “we will look at an arrogant, out of control, unaccountable judiciary that have thumbed their nose at the Congress and the president.”
The first face-off between DeLay and Democrats is likely to come over the House ethics committee, in a fight that is seen as closely tied to DeLay’s ethical woes.
In March, the committee’s Democrats announced that they would not participate in its activities until the House repealed new rules written by the Republican leadership that the Democrats said made it virtually impossible to initiate and carry out investigations.
The Republicans responded that they had no intention of repealing rules. Democrats are threatening to use a parliamentary procedure to bring a bill to the floor that would force a revote on the rules.