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DeLay's absence complicates House leadership's task

WASHINGTON—Even before Rep. Tom DeLay stepped down as majority leader of the House of Representatives this week, the extraordinarily regimented House Republicans were showing signs of rebellion.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and his leadership team were scrambling to put out fires among restive conservatives and appease disgruntled moderates.

Now, with DeLay, R-Texas, officially out of the party's top echelon, Hastert is missing his main disciplinarian just as Republicans want to cut spending and taxes aggressively, and change immigration and energy laws. His absence gives rebels an opening.

"Delay has an experience in both leadership and moving our agenda that is just amazing. It's a gift," said Rep. Thomas Reynolds, a New York Republican who heads the congressional campaign arm of the GOP. "He's the best vote counter I've ever been associated with."

Hastert still may keep DeLay within reach, as he told the Texan he would on Thursday, but DeLay has no official role now that he's been temporarily replaced by Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Blunt will handle DeLay's old duties with two other GOP veterans, Eric Cantor of Virginia and David Dreier of California. Despite the extra help, Hastert has his work cut out as he tries to keep the party's fiscal hawks, social conservatives and moderates on the same page.

"More is going to rest on his (Hastert's) shoulders," predicted Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a moderate.

Conservatives already were fretting that Republican leaders and President Bush were doing little to contain spending. The Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives, had demanded sizeable spending cuts, including delaying a Medicare prescription-drug program for the elderly and elimination of lawmakers' pet highway projects. The suggestions had not gone over well with the GOP leadership.

Meanwhile, moderates had been resisting pressure all year to buy into Bush's plan to create individual retirement accounts for Social Security. Many also gritted their teeth through votes in favor of Bush's tax cuts.

"Lots of members have been appalled at the kind of Gilded-Age mentality of the party," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Others felt like they had to take one for the team."

Ornstein said Republicans hung tight because they were pushing Bush's agenda, but the landscape is different now that Bush no longer faces re-election and they do.

"Suddenly, the president's fate and their fate are no longer inextricably linked," he said. That complicates leadership of House Republicans, and DeLay getting dethroned only makes it worse.

Michael Franc, a former top aide to the House Republican leadership, said that DeLay's removal allows conservatives to push their budget-cutting plans to the top of the Republican agenda. DeLay had been among those most resistant to eliminating pork-barrel projects from the highway bill or delaying the effective date of the prescription drug program.

"In the last two or three weeks, there has been an increasing restlessness among conservatives, mostly about the open-ended (financial) response to Katrina," said Franc, now with the Heritage Foundation, another conservative think tank. "There's a growing number of conservative voters coming to the conclusion that Republicans have lost their way."

To that end, many Republican lawmakers are talking about deeper budget cuts than the party leadership favors. Shays compared their pressure to that of Iraq's Sunni minority, eager for more influence than their numbers might justify. "Don't make the assumption that because you have the majority, you have 100 percent of the power," Shays said.

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

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