Can DeLay Survive?

In 2002 just after then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott announced that he would step down amid a furor over his seemingly pro-segregation comments at a birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, Lott got a call from another Republican powerbroker who offered his sympathies.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Lott recalls, was on the line telling his Senate colleague he thought Lott had been treated unfairly and that he felt terrible. Lott interrupted. “I said, ‘Tom, I really appreciate it. But let me tell you, my friend – be careful, because you are next.’ ”

DeLay’s troubles have been dominating the headlines from Capitol Hill. Democrats last week held high-profile press conferences aimed at sweeping DeLay’s alleged ethics violations and controversial comments about the judiciary into a broader charge that Republicans are “abusing their power.” Republicans, including the president, created their own media waves by expressing support for DeLay.

Although most members of Congress remained focused on the routine business of energy, spending and other legislation, the big question about DeLay lingered in the wings. Is he about to reach the tipping point that distinguishes a leader under fire who survives, from one who faces a controversy so radioactive that he is forced to step down?

“I don’t know that there’s, you know, a magic moment,” said Lott, the fallen Senate leader who has forcefully defended DeLay this past week. “When I felt like I became a shadow, I stepped aside. But if it reaches the point where Tom thinks he has become a shadow and he asks me, my advice would be: ‘Stay.’ There are some things more important than being in the majority.”

So far, some of the usual signs that DeLay’s power has eroded irretrievably have not surfaced.

Just one Republican House member has called for DeLay to step down: the maverick Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who has long had a prickly relationship with more conservative party leaders.

Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, another moderate Republican, noted last week that questions about DeLay’s conduct have created a cloud over the party and could create problems in tough 2006 races like his own.

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, No. 3 in the Senate Republican leadership, has suggested DeLay lay out his case before the American people, but he also has consistently underscored that he thinks DeLay is an effective leader.

Among DeLay’s troops in the House, where real fissures could endanger his post, members have been publicly supportive, carefully sticking to their talking points about a left-wing conspiracy targeting DeLay.

Privately, some acknowledged that the steady tick of questions about DeLay’s expensive foreign trips, fund-raising practices and relationships with powerful lobbyists under investigation, are “a distraction,” but most say they believe the strong power base DeLay has built will sustain him.

Elected majority whip in 1994, DeLay helped orchestrate the Republican rise to a now-comfortable margin in the House – where there are now 232 Republicans, 202 Democrats and one independent – and he has masterfully marshaled Republican votes on issues important to the Bush White House. With a difficult legislative agenda facing Congress this year, DeLay’s ability to keep Republicans on track may be his greatest asset.

Political scientist Ross K. Baker, of Rutgers University, argued that the timing of the controversy favors DeLay. If it had started boiling in the spring of 2006 instead of this year, DeLay would be in “serious trouble,” he said.

“Individual members of Congress judge whether their leader is an asset or an embarrassment in terms of how this affects their re-election chances,” Baker said. “If they sense their careers are being jeopardized by something that’s happening to their leaders, they’ll push them over the side fast enough, but I think at this point, he’s not close to the rail.

“Republicans are in firm control of the House,” Baker added. “There’s been little overt slippage in his support. A lot of people owe him.”