Republicans admit need for new leaders


    Buffeted by scandal, House Republicans are clamoring for new
    election-year leadership, and indicted Rep. Tom DeLay’s hopes of
    returning to power as floor leader are dwindling.

    “I do not want
    Tom DeLay to return,” Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, a perennial
    election-year target of Democrats, said Friday.

    “It’s clear that
    we need to elect a new majority leader to restore the trust and
    confidence of the American people,” said Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota,
    as two fellow Republicans circulated a petition calling for new
    elections.

    DeLay, a Texan whose fierce devotion to conservative
    causes has helped nurture the Republican majority, gave no public
    indication he was willing to abandon his quest to return to his
    powerful post.

    But his longtime friend, Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, signaled he would not try to block the rank-and-file from acting.

    “This
    is consistent with the speaker’s announcement … that House
    Republicans would revisit this matter at the beginning of this year,”
    said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean, referring to the petition drive.

    Other
    officials said an announcement on new elections could come within a few
    days, before Hastert is scheduled to leave on an overseas trip.

    The
    speaker’s hold on power appears secure. Several officials said he has
    been involved in discussions in recent days on a package of ethics
    reform measures to be announced next week, part of a broader GOP
    attempt to minimize any election-year taint of scandal.

    Rep. Roy
    Blunt of Missouri, who took over as majority leader temporarily when
    DeLay stepped aside following his indictment on political
    money-laundering charges in Texas, is certain to run for the post in
    his own right if new elections are held.

    Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, a former member of the leadership, is his likeliest rival, and there may be other contenders as well.

    The
    maneuvering occurred near the end of a week in which lobbyist Jack
    Abramoff, the central figure in a growing public corruption
    investigation and a man with close ties to Republicans, pleaded guilty
    to conspiracy and several other charges in two federal courtrooms.

    At
    the same time, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that 49 percent of
    those surveyed said they would prefer to see Democrats in control of
    Congress, and 36 percent said Republicans.

    DeLay insists he is
    innocent of wrongdoing in the Texas case and says he intends to reclaim
    his leadership post once he is cleared.

    Hastert and other
    Republicans accepted that arrangement temporarily last year, and DeLay
    maneuvered to win the dismissal of charges or gain an acquittal by
    early February.

    But Abramoff’s guilty pleas appear to have
    changed the political environment for Republicans 11 months before the
    midterm elections.

    “The situation is that Tom’s legal situation
    doesn’t seem to be reaching clarity,” Rep. John Kline of Minnesota said
    in an interview. “There are stories of more indictments or questions
    associated with Jack Abramoff. And I think that Tom DeLay is going to
    have to concentrate on that.”

    DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said
    his boss “appreciates that a majority of his colleagues recognizes that
    he remains committed to fulfilling his responsibilities as majority
    leader and that he’ll be quickly exonerated in Texas.”

    Republican
    rules permit an election to fill the vacancy, and aides to Reps. Jeff
    Flake of Arizona and Charles Bass of New Hampshire said the two men
    were circulating a petition that would allow the rank and file to pick
    new leadership quickly.

    “The developments with Abramoff have
    “brought home the fact that we need not just new leaders but a course
    correction,” Flake said.

    While Flake is a conservative in a safe
    congressional district, others calling for a change were more moderate
    Republicans who could face difficult re-election campaigns this fall.

    New Mexico’s Wilson was among them.

    She
    said three of DeLay’s “former senior staff members have admitted or
    have been implicated in corrupt and illegal activities to get money for
    themselves by influencing legislation. Whether or not Mr. DeLay was
    involved himself or knew this was going on, he is responsible for his
    office.”

    ___

    Associated Press writers Fred Frommer, Sam Hananel, Andrew Miga and Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.

    © 2006 The Associated Press