WASHINGTON—They'll probably joke about his nickname when conservatives gather in a Washington hotel ballroom Thursday night to toast Rep. Tom DeLay. But his moniker, The Hammer, helps explain why Democrats are hounding him with accusations of unethical behavior and why Republicans are standing by him.
His rare ability to muscle the Republican agenda through the House of Representatives makes him a high-profile target for Democrats eager to use ethics questions to topple or at least cripple him. And it makes him popular with Republicans, who largely remain loyal to him, and with conservative interest groups, who'll showcase their support at Thursday's testimonial dinner.
First elected in 1984, DeLay worked his way into the Republican leadership of the House eight years later and won election as majority leader in 2002. He's arguably the most effective leader either political party has had in Congress in a generation, perhaps even since two fellow Texans, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Sam Rayburn, ruled the Senate and the House in the 1950s.
He does it by working hard, courting House Republicans with favors ranging from pizza during late-night sessions to cash for hard-fought campaigns, and confronting Democrats with a take-no-prisoners approach that makes him enormously popular with the party's conservative base.
"He's an unapologetic, in-your-face guy," said David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and organizer of Thursday's dinner. "He may be the most effective guy doing the job he does that we've had in modern times. They have not lost a major vote with him as leader."
Indeed, DeLay delivers, whether it's pushing the House to impeach President Clinton, forcing a reluctant House to pass President Bush's expansion of the Medicare program or hauling House members back to town on Palm Sunday to pass a law trying to save the life of a brain-damaged Florida woman.
One way he holds the loyalty of Republicans is by being their buddy. He stocks food in his Capitol offices for hungry members. His staff helps members arrange trips—at least it did until the current ethics flap over DeLay's own lobbyist-financed travel.
He also spreads around cash.
In the last campaign, DeLay's political action committee contributed $980,278 to fellow Republicans—in Congress or running for Congress. That was more than any other leader in Congress from either party, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington research group.
By comparison, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., distributed $836,500 through his political action committee; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., gave $757,000; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gave $624,000; and former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., gave $354,500.
"Among his colleagues, he's genuinely liked," said Bob Walker, a former Republican member of the House from Pennsylvania who lost to DeLay in a 1994 contest for party whip, the chief vote-counter and third-highest slot in the House leadership.
DeLay is more of a backroom dealer than a spokesman, leaving the public spotlight more to others in the caucus.
He seldom goes on television talk shows. He passed up a golden shot to become speaker—the most powerful post in Congress and third in the succession line to the presidency—because he thought himself "too nuclear" for the job. Instead, he threw his considerable support to his deputy and helped Hastert leapfrog to the job after Newt Gingrich quit.
DeLay's hammer isn't always wrapped in velvet, of course.
When the Republicans won control of the House in 1994, it was DeLay who pressured lobbyists to fork over more contributions, to fire Democrats and hire Republicans instead. "If you want to play in our revolution, you have to live by our rules," he said, according to news accounts at the time.
Pressing the House to pass the president's Medicare proposal in 2003, he bluntly told Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., that he'd endorse Smith's son in a congressional campaign in exchange for Smith's vote. The House ethics committee later criticized DeLay for attempting to trade a political endorsement for a House vote.
When he pushed to impeach Clinton in 1998, at least one member felt the threat of punishment for refusing to go along. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said at the time that he believed DeLay tried to strip him, unsuccessfully, of a subcommittee chairmanship.
So far, only one Republican in the House has said DeLay should step down, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut. The rest are standing by him.
"As long as there is no real fire to go with the smoke, the Republican conference is going to stick with him," Walker said. "They are very aware that the loss of a leader of his caliber would be a blow to them. ... They're worried about the volume of stories, but so far nobody has seen anything that strikes them as a real fire."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tom DeLay
Need to map