AUSTIN, Texas—The indictment Wednesday of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay forces one of the most powerful Republicans in government to surrender his post at a time when his party is being buffeted by political setbacks from Iraq to the Gulf Coast and the White House.
DeLay's exile from power is expected to last until the felony charge is resolved. That could keep him out of action well into next year's midterm elections for control of Congress. It also costs the nation's governing party its steeliest hand in Congress—he's nicknamed "the hammer" for his legendary ability to press legislation through—at a time when the party's agenda has stalled and its leaders appear to be struggling to regain control of events and the public's confidence.
A Texas grand jury accused DeLay, R-Texas, and two associates of conspiring to circumvent Texas election laws in their successful 2002 campaign to win control of the Texas state House of Representatives.
DeLay angrily denied the charge and said it stemmed from a partisan political vendetta against him. "I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House. I have done nothing unlawful, unethical or, I might add, unprecedented," he said. "I am innocent."
The man who sought the indictment was Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, one of the state's highest-ranking Democrats and once described by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as "the only Democrat left who can make them sweat."
DeLay, 58, will keep his seat in the U.S. House, where he represents Houston's southwest suburbs. But he announced soon after the indictment that he was stepping down temporarily from his leadership post, as required by party rules.
"I have notified the speaker that I will temporarily step aside from my position as majority leader pursuant to rules of the House Republican Conference and the actions of the Travis County district attorney today," DeLay said in a statement.
House Republicans selected Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., their third-ranking leader, to step up as acting majority leader.
If convicted, DeLay faces a maximum of two years in a state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
DeLay's woes came on top of news last week that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee faces an inquiry from the Securities and Exchange Commission about his sale of stock in HCA Inc., a corporation founded by his family, shortly before the firm revealed disappointing earnings and lost value. Frist has denied wrongdoing, but the headlines are overshadowing his party leadership.
Both GOP congressional leaders came under legal clouds at a time when President Bush is suffering from record-low popularity, dragged down by anxiety about the Iraq war, anger about gasoline prices and complaints about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Inside Republican ranks in Congress, some fiscal conservatives are threatening rebellion over their leaders' open-checkbook response to the hurricanes' devastation.
Some Democrats were quick to pounce.
"The Republican leadership in Washington is now spending more time answering questions about ethical misconduct than doing the people's business," said Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush considers DeLay a valuable friend.
"Congressman DeLay is a good ally, a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people," McClellan said. "I think the president's view is that we need to let the legal process work."
The indictment, handed down on the last day of the grand jury's term, accused DeLay and two others of conspiring to influence a number of swing races for the Texas House. Also indicted: John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee created by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, director of Americans for a Republican Majority, DeLay's national political committee.
DeLay said the indictment was part of "the politics of personal destruction," a phrase President Bill Clinton used in the 1990s when Republicans went after him.
"Democrats resent Tom DeLay because he routinely defeats them, both politically and legislatively," said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
He said prosecutor Earle recently talked in detail about the DeLay investigation at a Democratic fundraising event, prompting at least one major Texas newspaper, The Houston Chronicle, to criticize the credibility of his probe.
"Earle has been incapable of separating his personal politics from his professional responsibilities. He has used his investigatory powers to energize Democrat activists, and Democrat activists have, in turn, fueled the zeal with which he has pursued DeLay," Reynolds said.
Democrats countered that Earle has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans.
The group that first sought the investigation, Texans for Public Justice, said the indictment was a proper charge stemming from DeLay's illegal use of corporate money in the 2002 elections.
"No jury can undo the outcome of Texas' 2002 elections," said Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald, "but the justice system must punish those who criminally conspire to undermine democracy, no matter how powerful they may be."
Democratic pressure early this year forced the House Republican majority to rescind two rules changes drawn apparently to protect DeLay. One would have allowed him to remain as majority leader if indicted; the other made it more difficult to force ethics investigations.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee cited DeLay's indictment in a new fundraising appeal Wednesday. At least one prominent Democrat said, however, that the indictment could tarnish all in Congress, not just Republicans.
"I'm not certain that voters are sophisticated enough to see this as Republican wrongdoing rather than a crooked Congress," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. "So we have to be very careful how we handle this."
(Thomma reported from Washington; Moritz of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported from Austin. James Kuhnhenn and Maria Recio of the Star-Telegram contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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