The Hammer gets hammered

Known as “The Hammer,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has long been feared on Capitol Hill for his partisan ruthlessness, fundraising prowess and knack for keeping his own party’s troops in line.

These days, however, the Texas Republican is the one taking the pummeling, for a series of ethics controversies – from his involvement in a controversial redistricting plan to whether he improperly accepted gifts and travel from lobbyists and foreign government interests – that could make him a liability to some Republicans in races next year if he remains in his No. 2 leadership post.

DeLay went on the offensive Wednesday during a weekly briefing with reporters, portraying the growing scrutiny as a Democrat-orchestrated campaign to undermine Republican policymaking, and suggesting that it is for this reason that he does not intend to respond publicly to individual allegations, as some of his own colleagues are now asking him to do.

“The left and the Democrats and some in the media would rather have me addressing other matters, but I will not do that here,” he said. “I’m not here to discuss the Democrats’ agenda. I’m here to discuss our agenda.”

DeLay said his emotions got the better of him earlier this month when he suggested that the judges who allowed Terri Schiavo’s death by removal of her feeding tube might face impeachment as payback.

“I believe in an independent judiciary,” he said. But he defended Congress’ right to determine funding, jurisdiction and oversight of courts.

DeLay recited a list of issues debated so far this year on the House floor, including supplemental war spending, limits on class-action lawsuits, changes to bankruptcy law and an expanded repeal of estate taxes, as well as upcoming debates on energy legislation and Central American free trade.

“Things are going on, folks, believe it or not. We’re getting things done,” he said. “As majority leader, I’m seeing our agenda done. Nothing has slowed down.”

Indeed, Democrats are hoping they can make DeLay the bookend to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Back then, many voters were fed up with the excesses of the Democrats who had long held control, and Republicans harnessed that disgust effectively.

Some Democrats say the tables could turn, and while they may not recapture control overnight, an ethics scandals could chip away at the Republicans’ lock.

“It’s an issue that’s going to emerge as we go to the midterms, if his problems continue to mount,” said pollster Mark J. Penn.

Hours before DeLay’s comments Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid held a press conference alleging Republican leaders were misusing their power to stifle ethics inquiries and Democratic dissent.

But the criticism more dangerous to DeLay is that coming from his own side of the aisle.

Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, is among those calling for DeLay to step aside.

“I know there are Democrats going after him because of who he is politically, just as there were Republicans who went after Bill Clinton because of who he was politically,” Fitton said. “But that does not answer to specific charges that are out there.”

One Republican House member, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, has said DeLay should step aside and that his entanglements are hurting his colleagues by association.

Two Republican senators expecting tough races in 2006, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, have said DeLay should publicly address the controversies and explain his actions.

And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who resigned after ethics troubles of his own hurt fellow Republicans in the 1998 election, told a session of the American Society of Newspapers Editors gathered in Washington that DeLay can’t simply dismiss the attacks.

“Clearly, DeLay is going to have to reach out to the rest of the country,” he said.

In recent weeks, DeLay’s critics have emphasized his longstanding friendship with Jack Abramoff, a now-disgraced lobbyist who is the subject of a federal investigation for his dealings with Indian gaming clients.

Meanwhile, a Texas prosecutor has indicted three DeLay associates and several corporations in connection with the redistricting case, alleging a political action committee with ties to DeLay illegally raised corporate donations as part of a strategy to bolster Republican representation in the state legislature in 2002. DeLay has not been indicted, although the prosecutor has not ruled that out.

Publicly, DeLay still counts the support of party leaders. A White House spokesman this week characterized the congressman as “a friend” of President Bush and said the president looked forward to continuing to work with the majority leader.

Washington Bureau Chief David Westphal contributed to this report.