MARGARET WARNER: In a letter delivered to House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Saturday Texas Republican Tom Delay announced he would no longer try to reclaim his position as House Majority Leader. Delay had stepped down temporarily from the post in September after being indicted on charges of violating Texas political finance laws.
On Saturday he spoke to reporters in his home district.
REP. TOM Delay: I asked Speaker Hastert to convene the House Republican Conference as soon as possible as -- for the purpose of electing a new majority leader.
You know, serving in that capacity through the trust and confidence of my colleagues in the House has been a really great honor these last three years. But the job of majority leader is too important to be hamstrung by personal distractions.
In the 21 years I have been in Congress I have always acted in an ethical manner within the rules of the House and the laws of our land, and time once again will bear out that truth.
REP. TOM Delay: I am still a candidate for re-election this November. And I plan to run a very vigorous campaign. And I plan to win it.
MARGARET WARNER: And for more on why Tom Delay did this and what comes next for the Republican majority in Congress we turn to veteran Congress watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Welcome back, Norm.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thanks, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: First of all, the Tom Delay we just saw, not exactly a chastened fellow; was this a free choice on his part, or was he pushed?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: He was pushed very hard, he resisted for some time but the beginning of the end occurred towards the end of last week when a number of Republicans openly pushed a petition to call the conference of Republicans to have a new leadership vote.
You had to do this in public. And once you saw fifteen or twenty out there accepting this notion, they needed fifty signatures, it was very clear that the election was going to take place, and he would not be the winner.
MARGARET WARNER: Now Delay has been radioactive on the ethics front for a while, given indictments and the censures by the House committee. What was the catalyst that pushed him over? Was it the Abramoff scandal?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think you have to say it was the Abramoff scandal. He's had a bad couple of days. Actually, the other thing that happened today is that the highest court in Texas ruled that his trial would go forward and wouldn't necessarily be done in an expedited way.
But that trial involving the finance charges in Texas was now superseded or has been superseded by this array of developments in the Jack Abramoff case.
It includes a reality that many of the people in the constellation around Jack Abramoff were the closest aides to Tom Delay And there are lots of things --
MARGARET WARNER: Or former aides.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Or former aids -- many things that occurred right within the majority leader's office.
We have nothing at this point that ties Tom Delay directly to illegal conduct through Jack Abramoff, but if we were moving in the direction where Delay and his office were going to be tied so closely to this, there was no way he could stay the leader.
MARGARET WARNER: And so what you are saying is Republicans who are facing re-election in November just decided this was too heavy a political burden?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There is enormous unease in Republican ranks, and even panic in some cases over how far the scandal will spread and how much they, even if they have had nothing to do with it, will end up being dragged down by it. So they want to get some distance from it.
MARGARET WARNER: Now explain to us why actually this job is so important? After all, there is already a top Republican in the House and that's the speaker. When Newt Gingrich held that job, he was considered the head of the Republicans.
Why is the majority leader post so important, did Tom Delay make it so important?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Tom Delay had an awful lot to do with that. The fact is the speaker of the House is an officer of the United States. He's elected by the entire body. He represents the entire body, even if he is, in fact, the top figure of the majority party.
We then have party leaders who really are there to push the party program, to bring coherence, to decide what the priorities are.
Speaker Hastert is actually a pretty strong figure. But he has not been the dominant figure in the House. Tom DeLay's been the driving force. And remember since George Bush became president, coming in with a five-seat majority out of four hundred and thirty-five in the House, they have had remarkable unity to make a program go through.
It's operated almost like a House of Commons. And he has been the major force there. A lot of his members are grateful for that, but there are also hard edges that come when you push people into a coherence that doesn't fit their own ideology.
MARGARET WARNER: He didn't get the nickname "The Hammer" for nothing.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, so there are two announced candidates: Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boehner of Ohio, neither exactly household names.
What is important to know about them, what is really the contrast between them, and is the race between them about anything or is it simply a clash of personalities or loyalties?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It is more personalities than anything else right now. And both have been veterans in the House and veterans in the leadership. Roy Blunt of Branson, the area around Branson, Missouri, has been the acting majority leader, before that was the majority whip, basically picked for the post by Tom Delay and he has been a top lieutenant there.
He's well liked. He is a very warm person in a lot of ways but of course has the problem at this point that he is attached to a leadership structure whether he is Tom Delay's closest friend or not, and he's not particularly, he is now a candidate of the establishment.
John Boehner is also a veteran. He was one of the famous "Gang of Seven" who joined with Newt Gingrich when the Democrats were in the majority to try and push for change, and helped to bring about the first Republican majority in 40 years in 1994. He was rewarded at that point by being introduced into the leadership as chairman of the Republican Conference, voted by his colleagues.
But four years later, when there was widespread discontent, he was ousted from that position. He has since licked his wounds a little bit but reemerged as a chairman of the major committee, Education in the Workforce. They are both conservatives, but they are not doctrinaire conservatives.
And now the question is whether you get somebody outside the leadership a little bit but is still more or less an establishment figure or somebody who has been inside in an establishment figure.
MARGARET WARNER: But now when the Abramoff case sort of split open last week, when Abramoff pleaded guilty, the super lobbyist, there were voices, conservative voices, former Speaker Gingrich, Times columnist David Brooks who said, you know, this isn't just about changing that one job, that the problem isn't Delay, it's DeLayism, and I think David Brook's line was it is DeLayism, the whole culture that merged K Street with the Hill.
And they talked about Newt Gingrich has said you need fundamental reform, we need a clean sweep, we need a reform bill that bans lobbyists-paid travel or hiring spouses, lobbyists hiring spouses of members.
Is anyone running on a platform of dramatic change like that? And if not, why not?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: At the moment, not. And one of the puzzles here is why we do not have an announced candidate who is outside the establishment structure but also reflects to some degree the discontent that the stronger conservatives have felt with this culture which has been more concerned in their view with maintaining power than pursuing principles.
And of course, the focus is especially around two things: One was the Medicare prescription drug bill, that famous bill we discussed before, the three-hour vote that now is trillions of dollars in cost and an expanded entitlement.
The other was that famous transportation bill with large amounts of spending, a question of whether you change the basic way of operation. You have to believe that these two candidates are going to have to inch in that direction.
But there are others outside there including John Shadegg, a more conservative younger member from Arizona, who is looking into the possibility of a race as well.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And vote to come on Feb. 2.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: So much campaigning to come. Norm, thanks.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Sure, Margaret.