KWAME HOLMAN: Tom DeLay of Texas, the bare-knuckled politician, never was known to back down from a fight during any of his 22 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. And so his announcement that he will step down in the face of a tough re-election race stunned the political world.
REP. TOM DeLay (R-TX), Former House Majority Leader: I started looking at it. We ran a poll. It showed that I had a 50-50 chance of winning. I spent a lot of time praying about it, trying to seek what the Lord wanted me to do. And it became more and more obvious that I can do more outside of Congress right now than inside.
KWAME HOLMAN: DeLay admitted that the ongoing criminal investigation into his use of campaign funds to redraw Texas' congressional districts in 2002 was lasting longer than he expected. And another investigation hangs over DeLay, as well.
Last week in Washington, his former aide, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty to conspiring with lobbyist Jack Abramoff to corrupt public officials. Neither Rudy nor Abramoff has accused DeLay publicly of breaking the law, but Rudy confessed that he had engaged in illegal activities while working in DeLay's majority whip office in early 2000.
However, DeLay today rejected the notion that scandal was a factor in his decision to step down.
REP. TOM DeLay: The Abramoff affair has nothing to do with me. The Justice Department has told my lawyers I'm not a target of this investigation. What those men did have greatly disappointed me, but it has nothing to do with me.
KWAME HOLMAN: Concern that DeLay's problems could drag down other Republicans in November's midterm elections has been intense, and today on Capitol Hill, Republican Tom Tiahrt of Kansas acknowledged that DeLay's departure could help the party.
REP. TOM TIAHRT (R), Kansas: By Tom DeLay removing himself from the political process, one of the targets of the Democrat Party is simply not on the table, not available. So, in that sense, it's better for the Republican Party.
KWAME HOLMAN: DeLay's decision to resign ends the reign of one of the most powerful and controversial Republican leaders in modern times. First elected to the House in 1984, DeLay rose to power 10 years later when the Republican revolution swept the party into the House majority for the first time in 40 years.
DeLay, a loyal supporter of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, established himself as a forceful majority whip, earning the nickname "The Hammer." His ability to keep rank-and-file members in line with the leadership was legendary, as were his prodigious fundraising skills.
DeLay also was a driving force behind President Clinton's impeachment in 1999.
REP. TOM DeLay: The house has no choice but to proceed with an impeachment inquiry.
KWAME HOLMAN: And in 2003, when Majority Leader Dick Armey retired, DeLay easily won election to replace him. He spoke to the NewsHour's Ray Suarez shortly afterwards.
REP. TOM DeLay: I'm very passionate about what I believe in. Some people think I'm a little too aggressive with passion. But, yes, I have things I deeply believe in, and I speak out on them. And I use my position to further that agenda.
KWAME HOLMAN: But DeLay's style and actions began to work against him. In 2004, the House Ethics Committee admonished him three times for inappropriate behavior, once for improperly trying to influence a member's vote on Medicare legislation.
And early last year, the Washington Post ran a series of stories detailing trips DeLay and other Republicans took to London, Scotland and South Korea, paid for by lobbyists interested in influencing legislation, one of whom was Jack Abramoff.
Later, when a Texas grand jury indicted him for the alleged illegal use of campaign money to sway state legislative races, DeLay was forced to quit his leadership post. Though other indictments followed a month later, DeLay vowed to return to power.
REP. TOM DeLay: I will temporarily step aside as floor leader in order to win exoneration from these baseless charges.
KWAME HOLMAN: But in January, when former lobbyist Jack Abramoff was indicted, a group of House Republicans circulated a petition calling for a permanent replacement for DeLay Soon after, DeLay relinquished the leader post for good, but maintained his congressional seat in Texas' 22nd district.
REP. TOM DeLay: I am still a candidate for reelection this November, and I plan to run a very vigorous campaign, and I plan to win it.
KWAME HOLMAN: DeLay easily won his primary bid for reelection a few weeks ago, but now says the campaign would be too difficult for his constituents.
REP. TOM DeLay: They don't deserve a nasty eight-month or seven-month campaign that's a national campaign, with all of the Michael Moores and the Barbara Streisands coming down here into Texas to support my liberal Democrat opponent.
And there's no guarantee that I can win. I think I could win; it would be a very close race; it would be very expensive. But if I step aside, whoever replaces me on the ballot will be guaranteed a seat in Congress. And it's too important for me and I've worked too hard to have a Republican majority give this seat up to a Democrat.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the Capitol today, where DeLay's staff greeted him with cheers, many of his Republican colleagues argued that, despite the scandals, the former majority leader has been a force who will leave a lasting impact.
Alabama's Robert Aderholt.
REP. ROBERT ADERHOLT (R), Alabama: Aderholt Tom DeLay is someone that was really an icon around here. He's someone who's had -- he's got great common sense. But yet, at the same time, he understands politics, and he understands the needs of the members. And I think he is someone who will go down as probably one of the most powerful majority whips and majority leaders that we've seen in this century.
KWAME HOLMAN: Tom DeLay will not officially resign his congressional seat until May or June. He then plans to move permanently to the Washington area to, as he said, "put his life back together."
GWEN IFILL: The beginning of the end of Tom DeLay's political career was first reported last night in Time Magazine Online by reporter Mike Allen, who interviewed Tom and Christine DeLay at their Sugar Land, Texas, home yesterday. He joins us tonight, along with congressional expert Norman Ornstein, who is also with the American Enterprise Institute.
Mike Allen, we've been hearing at least one Republican congressman say that Tom DeLay's resignation takes a target off the table. Is that true, as far as you know, from what you're reporting today for prosecutors, for Democrats, for Republicans?
MIKE ALLEN, Time Magazine's White House Correspondent: Well, I don't think it takes anything off the table for prosecutors. But for Republicans, it is helpful.
Gwen, as you know, this fall, any Republican in a tight race was going to have to answer the question: Do you support Tom DeLay? And he was their leader. A lot of them had respect and affection for them. A lot of them were there because of him, and so it was not an easy question for them to answer. Now they can sort of try and portray him as old news.
Of course, Democrats will try to make the case, "Oh, this shows that there was substance to what we were saying, that there really was something there."
Now, Mr. DeLay said to me yesterday that he believes he does not have any vulnerability in this Justice Department probe of Jack Abramoff that's going on. His legal team told me that, around Christmas, they handed over a thousand e-mails, sort of as a pre-emptive strike, out of Mr. DeLay's office.
The concern -- Jack Abramoff was basically -- staffers chattering with him and about him. And they said that it did not -- they didn't seem to be helpful, but they didn't seem to be anything devastating in it.
And what I didn't think to ask at the time -- and I was thinking about it today -- if they have a thousand e-mails out of that office that concern Jack Abramoff, I mean, that may tell you something of a story in itself. But anyways...
GWEN IFILL: That, at the very least, they are very close. I also was interested in your article today. You mentioned that Tom DeLay actually said that he had hired someone to do all the investigating into his background that he thought prosecutors would do, and they turned up nothing, so he took this seriously enough to hire his own investigator?
MIKE ALLEN: Yes, these were lawyers. I don't think that's an uncommon step. It was sort of the approach that they took to it. But, in their view, he personally did not have responsibility for these things.
Now, one of the targets that is removed by this is Mr. DeLay now does not have to fear what the House Ethics Committee might do if it ever shakes off the paralysis and gets on the job, because failure to supervise staff is an offense that they can look into it.
And I asked Mr. DeLay if he was guilty of that. He said he was not. He said: Two people disappointed me out of the hundreds that have worked for me. And I said, "Yes, sir, but two people now have testified that they committed crimes while they were on your payroll. They accepted goods of value."
And he said: If any office were under the scrutiny that mine had been for 10 years, you could find two people who were going to disappoint you.
GWEN IFILL: Norm Ornstein, how powerful was, is, Tom DeLay?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Tom DeLay has been extraordinarily powerful, Gwen. If you think about Republicans over the last 20 years who have shaped the House of Representatives' policy and our politics, the two that would come to mind would be Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay
And since Mr. Gingrich left the speakership in 1998, DeLay has been the dominant figure in Washington, other than the president. Tom DeLay was the driving force behind the impeachment of Bill Clinton. If it weren't for DeLay, almost certainly we would have had a censure motion that would have gotten bipartisan support.
Tom DeLay has had as much to do with the policy success of the Bush years in getting almost perfect unity, with a small majority in Congress, that helped to power them to successes, from tax cuts to Medicare prescription drugs.
And, of course, he's had an enormous influence on politics. As Mike suggested, he had a lot to do with the numbers that they have in Congress now. He almost single-handedly engineered the re-redistricting in Texas that gave them an extra six seats that may be the cushion, potentially, to keep them in power now.
GWEN IFILL: So how does it affect that balance of power for 2006? This is just one congressional seat, after all, that we're talking about in Texas.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It's one congressional seat. What Mr. DeLay said is he wants to be sure he can keep it in Republican hands, and it will be easier to do that with a district that went 64 percent for President Bush in 2004, although only 55 percent for DeLay, with another figure out there.
And it may be that these scandals will result in a few more members leaving before they're actually vulnerable in a reelection campaign.
But I think the bigger problem is that, while he's not a target in the same way for Democrats and their campaigns as Mike suggested, he does remain in the crosshairs of prosecutors and more members do, as well.
We've not only had two prominent staffers of his who were extremely close to him -- former communications director Mike Scanlon, former deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy -- basically plead not guilty and cooperate with prosecutors, in the latter case for conducting a criminal enterprise within the majority leader's office.
We have a third former staffer, very close to him, Ed Buckham, a former chief of staff, who has also committed some clear improprieties and may be next on the list.
And for Mr. DeLay, whose watchword as a leader was his attention to detail, his indefatigue ability, keeping on top of everything, to basically have three top staffers committing mayhem underneath your nose and not know about it doesn't make a lot of sense.
GWEN IFILL: Mike Allen, this is not the first time that Tom DeLay has had a brush with ethics issues; he's been rebuked three separate times by the Ethics Committee when it was actually working. So why step down now?
MIKE ALLEN: Well, Gwen, I think he was fairly candid about the fact that he could have lost. And his campaign recently got a poll that had very bleak news for him. And he told me there was a slightly better than 50-50 chance he could win. But, of course, that also meant that he could lose.
And so what he will tell you is he wanted to spare his district the mudfest that was going to occur, spare the party that, when, as Norm mentions, almost any other Republican can basically walk into the seat.
The other way to look at it, though, is this avoids possibility that this remarkable career -- and that's an amazing way that Norm phrased it, that he dominated Washington second only to the president -- could end with a loss.
What surprised me about Mr. DeLay's comments was he did not seem to have grappled with or realized how indelible some of these appearance issues are. You mentioned the previous brushes with ethics.
And one of the most difficult things that any of us can do is see ourselves as others see us; I certainly can't. But I was surprised, when I asked Mr. DeLay about the news stories, about the $740-a-night hotel rooms, the cigars, the limos, the golf resorts, I asked him if any of that high living had been a mistake for a servant of the people.
And he said that it hadn't been, that that was a matter of going where the people were. He correctly pointed that he doesn't choose where these groups he's speaking to are going to have their events. He goes to them.
And you heard a bit of the bitterness, a bit of the feistiness left in him when he said that the news media, when he'll speak at an event all day and play golf in the afternoon, of course, the news stories will be about the golf and not about the speaking. He really feels like he's gotten a bum deal.
Gwen, as you know, the DeLay mindset has always been to play very aggressively, play right up to the line, but what they've always said is: We have lots of lawyers. We listen to them. We follow their advice.
And what he had always said is he went right up to the line with no apologies, proudly -- he told me he was against any sort of lobbying reform yesterday -- but didn't cross. Of course, prosecutors are looking to see if that happened at all.
It's very possible that Mr. DeLay personally did not do any of these things, but I asked him about what all of our mothers told us: You're known by the company you keep. Was that a problem? And he didn't see that as a problem, either.
GWEN IFILL: Norm Ornstein, the Democrats have really enjoyed, in some respects, having Tom DeLay as the poster boy for the culture of corruption they talk about a lot. What will they do now?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: They're going to have to talk more generally, of course. But if Tom DeLay stayed in Congress and weren't indicted, they would have difficulty making this a larger national issue anyhow. If he gets indicted, even out of Congress, he's going to remain a major national figure in that front.
What we're waiting for now, Gwen, is a reality. You know, he may say that he left because he got a bad poll. He just went through a primary campaign less than -- just over a month ago. We've got seven months to go before an election. It's hard to imagine that this wasn't related to his staffer's guilty plea and what may flow from that.
And the fact is we've got prosecutors moving in a classic way up the food chain, through the lower figures to get the big fish. It's very likely that a number of members of Congress are going to be indicted before we're done with this. And then the culture of corruption issue may not need a single symbol.
GWEN IFILL: Norman Ornstein, Mike Allen, thank you both very much.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Sure, Gwen.
MIKE ALLEN: Have a beautiful week, Gwen.