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The Problems Facing House Republican Leader Tom Delay

April 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay of Texas. He’s at the center of a political firestorm triggered partly by the Terri Schiavo story. We’ll talk to Mark Shields and Rich Lowry about it right after this report by Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: When the Congress intervened in the Terri Schiavo case two weeks ago, one of the most powerful and polarizing figures in Washington led the charge. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

REP. TOM DeLAY: We have a moral obligation to protect and defend her from the fate premeditated by the Florida courts. If we do not act, she will die of thirst. However helpless, Mr. Speaker, she is alive.

HOUSE SPEAKER DENNIS HASTERT: The gentleman’s time has expired.

KWAME HOLMAN: During a rare weekend session, DeLay pushed through emergency legislation allowing a federal court to review the Schiavo case and President Bush flew from Texas to Washington to sign the bill.

But state courts in Florida and other federal courts consistently ruled that Schiavo’s feeding tube should not be reinserted. In the final such ruling, Federal Judge Stanley Birch of the Atlanta-based circuit criticized the bill Congress passed and the president signed.

He wrote: "the legislative and executive branches of our government have acted in a manner demonstrably at odds with our founding fathers’ blueprint for the governance of a free people – our Constitution."

Yesterday, Tom DeLay was among the first members of Congress to react publicly to Terri Schiavo’s death. He was sharply critical of the courts that refused to intervene in the case of the brain-damaged woman.

REP. TOM DeLAY: We will look at an arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their nose at Congress and the president when given the jurisdiction to hear this case anew and look at all the facts.

KWAME HOLMAN: On Capitol Hill, Tom DeLay typically operates behind the scenes, but in the last two weeks, his national exposure has been substantial and it comes on the heels of a spate of fresh ethics questions surrounding his political activities.

A Texas prosecutor has indicted three Delay associates for fundraising irregularities. Federal investigators say two lobbyists with ties to DeLay may have charged Indian tribes for tens of millions of dollars and questionable expenditures. And DeLay himself traveled expense free to England and a golf outing in Scotland in possible violation of House ethics rules.

Democrats and affiliated interest groups say DeLay raised his profile on the Schiavo case to take attention away from his ethics troubles. They point to remarks he made about the Schiavo case in a private speech to supporters two weeks ago. "One thing God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo to elevate the visibility of what’s going on in America – attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others."

Yesterday, the group Campaign for America’s Future began running this ad in DeLay’s Texas district.

AD ANNOUNCER: Tom DeLay can’t wash his hands of corruption by involving Congress in one family’s personal tragedy, but Congress can certainly wash its hands of Tom DeLay.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Congressman Bob Livingston served with Delay for years in the House. He said the leader was right to intervene in the Schiavo case regardless of his ethics troubles.

BOB LIVINGSTON: Tom DeLay didn’t initiate this problem. The problem was initiated by the trial judge and the trial court and a finding of fact that may have been deficient; and the Florida courts, the Florida legislature, ultimately the federal courts, because of what Tom DeLay did, all got involved.

But an innocent life was lost when, frankly, a willing, loving family was there to keep it from happening. It was government gone awry. And I think Tom DeLay will be proven right on this and he’ll be vindicated on this issue.

KWAME HOLMAN: But a new ad from another anti-Delay group doesn’t even mention the Schiavo case.

AD SPOKESMAN: Tom DeLay is a national embarrassment. He should resign his leadership position, if not his office.

LARRY JOHNSON: DeLay repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing.

REP. TOM DeLAY: Bring it on. It’s nothing but a bunch of leftist organizations that have a public strategy to demonize me, and usually they overreach.

KWAME HOLMAN: House Democrat Ben Cardin says the ads are a way to inform the public about DeLay, a job that should belong to the House Ethics Committee, whose powers were watered down at DeLay’s urging in January.

REP. BEN CARDIN: That is the real tragedy of all this, because once the institution can’t resolve an issue, then your last option is to go to the public and that’s not the best option.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats are not alone in criticizing DeLay. This week, the usually conservative Wall Street Journal editorial writers said: "Mr. DeLay, who rode to power in 1994 on a wave of revulsion at the everyday ways of big government, has become the living exemplar of some of its worst habits."

Veteran Republican Livingston knows how quickly political fortunes can shift. In 1999, he was on the verge of becoming House speaker before news about ethics questions forced him to resign. He said the media spotlight now is on Tom DeLay.

BOB LIVINGSTON: The fact is he’s the target. I can remember when Tip O’Neill, who was a good man, was the target — generated by Republicans. Jim Wright was the target — generated by Republicans. Well, Republicans are in power now. Newt Gingrich, I, and now Tom DeLay have all been the targets and it’s a media frenzy that all of a sudden accelerates and just won’t die down of its own.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Livingston, now a lobbyist working a stone’s throw from the Capitol, said DeLay should and will survive.

BOB LIVINGSTON: So I think there’s an awful lot of loyalty generated by members toward DeLay that, frankly, is not easily dismissed.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Democrat Cardin says Delay’s behavior is having an increasingly negative impact on the entire House. And as to whether he should resign.

REP BEN CARDIN: Well, that’s an issue I think only Tom DeLay can answer. I think he has to determine – he knows the circumstances, he knows his effectiveness in Congress.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, further Ethics Committee action that might affect Delay is on hold pending resolution of the dispute between the two parties over the panel’s new rules.