WASHINGTON – Defenders of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay dismissed his indictment as political revenge, but whether it sticks or not, the legal offensive could not have come at a worse time for Republicans in Washington.
DeLay has been one of Congress’ strongest partisan leaders in recent memory, earning the nickname “The Hammer” for his ability to forge strong loyalty among fellow House Republicans. But with some of President Bush’s initiatives, such as Social Security reform and further tax relief, already languishing, DeLay’s temporarily stepping down from his leadership post could erode that Republican cohesiveness.
“I think the president’s agenda, which is already in trouble, will be in more trouble,” said Ellen Miller, deputy director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “There was no one who held a tighter hammer over Republicans. … (DeLay) is in a much weaker position.”
The Bush administration is already struggling on three fronts:
• Hurricane Katrina response. Breakdowns at all levels of government have prompted much finger-pointing. The reconstruction challenge ahead is daunting. Now one of Bush’s top allies in Congress is sidelined while the president pushes for tens of billions of dollars for reconstruction.
• The war in Iraq. Bush on Wednesday warned to expect more violence before next month’s vote on a new Iraqi constitution. Even if the constitution is approved, tensions could escalate among Iraqi religious factions. Bush is sending Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top Pentagon generals to Capitol Hill today to assuage concerns that the war is not going well. “We have a plan to win,” Bush said, calling Iraq “a key battlefront in this war on terror.”
• The overall war on terror. Despite the killing of a key al-Qaida terrorist leader in Baghdad earlier this week, Americans are expressing more pessimism about progress against terrorism than they were a year ago. Outside Iraq, there have been no major victories in months. Just this week, a new Web broadcast allegedly produced by al-Qaida mocked the Bush administration’s response to the hurricanes.
Republicans dismissed DeLay’s indictment as revenge by prosecutor Ronnie Earle, and say the single conspiracy charge he faces is thin gruel dished out by Democrats who have been unable to defeat DeLay at the polls. The indictment accused DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee of accepting $155,000 in corporate contributions, which eventually made its way into Texas state legislative campaigns in violation of state law.
It’s unclear how the indictment will affect the public’s overall view of Congress, which was not high to begin with. Only 36 percent of those responding to a mid-September Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll gave GOP leaders in Congress high marks. And this came before revelations that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee faced federal investigations into his sale of stock in HCA Inc., the giant health care company his family founded, a month before share prices plunged nearly 9 percent on a weak earnings report.
The Republicans do have two things going for them.
The economy, though buffeted by rising energy prices, has remained relatively strong, although Americans are more pessimistic about their economic future than a year ago.
And there is no strong Democratic counterpart to Bush or GOP leaders. Pew found that while respondents heavily favored Democrats’ ability to handle many domestic issues, only 36 percent had favorable ratings of Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
In the face of these challenges, Bush is employing a classic leadership tactic by trying to appear above the fray.
“Washington tends to get caught up in bickering and finger-pointing,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Wednesday. “The president is focused on problem-solving.”
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