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House Republicans, conservatives rally behind embattled DeLay

WASHINGTON—House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, stands at the center of a growing maelstrom over his ethics but appears in no imminent danger of losing power because most of the House of Representatives' 232 Republicans appear to be solidly behind him.

Republican conservatives view attacks on DeLay as partisan volleys aimed at weakening the conservative movement, and they show no sign of nearing a tipping point at which they abandon him to avoid his taint. However, public opinion polls show his popularity slipping in his home district and nationally.

"This is an attack on the conservative movement. It is not just about Tom DeLay," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House chief deputy whip. "I have not seen anything indicating wrongdoing by the majority leader. There's clearly overwhelming support for our leader."

The Christian Coalition and the American Conservative Union have rallied to DeLay's defense. They see him as an effective champion of the conservative agenda, and more than 200 House Republicans share his political views.

"The support for DeLay is rock solid," said Jim Backlin, the Christian Coalition's vice president of legislative affairs.

American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene is organizing a tribute to DeLay in Washington on May 12.

DeLay's role as a leading GOP fund-raiser is at the center of the ethical swirl around him, especially his association with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who's under federal and Senate investigation. DeLay was admonished three times in a week last fall by the House ethics committee in separate incidents.

Two new reports surfaced Wednesday. The Washington Post reported that corporate lobbyists secretly funded a 1997 trip to Russia that DeLay and aides took and that Abramoff helped organize. The National Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit group that sponsored the trip, denies that there was anything improper. DeLay told CNN he knew only that he'd been invited by the policy center and that's what he reported to the House.

Also, The New York Times reported Wednesday that DeLay's political action and campaign committees have paid his wife and daughter more than $500,000 since 2001 for "fund-raising fees" and "campaign management." His PAC issued a statement saying the two provided extensive campaign services and that his daughter is a skilled, reputable organizer.

"My wife and daughter have any right, just like any other American, to be employed and be compensated for their employment," DeLay told CNN. "It's pretty disgusting, particularly when my wife and daughter are singled out and others are not, in similar situations in the Senate and as well as the House. But it's just another seedy attempt by the liberal media to embarrass me."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said she hadn't read the latest story about the Russia trip.

"But it's not about a trip," she said. "It's about a pattern of behavior that the leader has been involved in that is really more his problem than the specifics of any one trip."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said DeLay's ethics woes didn't appear to threaten his political future the way that House Speaker Jim Wright's did in 1989, when Wright, D-Texas, was forced to step down. Wright, a pragmatic Southerner, was less revered by his more liberal fellow House Democrats than DeLay appears to be by House Republicans.

"Jim Wright ... did not have the kind of emotional support from the Democratic base that DeLay has from the Republican base. And that's the issue," Frank said.

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, 81, joined the Republican Party in early 2004 after a lifetime as a conservative Democrat when a DeLay-led redistricting forced him to switch parties. Hall said DeLay's ethics troubles weren't bad enough yet to sink him.

"I have not seen any pressure from the Republican side," Hall said, but "you're always concerned about accusations and crossfire." He added: "I work with Tom. I have high regard for him."

If his Republican colleagues in Congress are standing behind DeLay, however, the public increasingly is not. A national Gallup Poll released Wednesday found that DeLay had a favorable rating of only 27 percent.

In his suburban Houston district, a Houston Chronicle poll released Sunday found that 45 percent of 501 voters questioned would vote for someone else while 38 percent would vote to re-elect DeLay.

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(The Gallup poll was of 1,040 adults, conducted April 1-2 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)

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(Recio reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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