DeLay’s gone but GOP’s troubles continue


    Republicans worried about their party’s future have succeeded in
    pushing embattled former Majority Leader Tom DeLay off the stage. Even
    so, the Republicans’ election-year troubles are far from over.

    Need a reminder?

    President
    Bush, the titular head of the GOP, is waging an unpopular war in Iraq
    and presiding over a nation with lingering economic anxieties. He
    suffers from approval ratings around 40 percent _ near record lows for
    his presidency. Questionable stock transactions by the top Republican
    in the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, are under
    investigation. A special prosecutor’s probe continues into whether Bush
    administration officials outed a CIA operative in retribution for her
    husband’s Iraq war criticism. A secret anti-terror program that Bush
    approved to eavesdrop on people inside the United States without
    warrants is raising concerns about overly broad presidential powers.

    Potentially most damaging is an influence-peddling scandal on Capitol Hill.

    Last
    week’s guilty pleas to corruption and tax evasion charges by the
    central figure in the scandal, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, are
    anything but the last chapter. Abramoff is cooperating in a
    wide-ranging investigation that could ensnare dozens of lawmakers with
    close ties to the generous and powerful lobbyist, including DeLay and
    House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, R-Ohio.

    Ross
    Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, called it a
    “partywide crisis” that the GOP has problems with its leadership in all
    three areas of the federal government that it controls.

    “The
    removal of DeLay from the leadership doesn’t end their problems with
    scandal and, more broadly, with running the House,” said Norm Ornstein
    with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “That’s their
    challenge, is to begin to get their policy act together. And they’re
    going to have to do it with just Republicans because Democrats are
    going to be against them.”

    Republican domination of Congress is
    at stake in the November elections. Indeed, a new Associated
    Press-Ipsos poll found that 49 percent of those surveyed said they
    would prefer to see Democrats take control of Congress, compared with
    36 percent who want a continued Republican majority.

    With that in
    mind, Saturday’s decision by DeLay to abandon his bid to resume his No.
    2 post in the House was welcomed by Republicans.

    The man
    Democrats love to hate is battling campaign finance charges in Texas
    that had forced him to step aside as majority leader. Maintaining his
    innocence, he had said he intended to take his leadership position back
    once cleared of the charges. DeLay changed his tune under pressure from
    fellow Republicans that only grew as the Abramoff case mushroomed.

    At
    the White House, where aides had insisted for weeks that the famously
    effective DeLay retained the president’s support, there was a sharp
    pivot. “We respect Congressman DeLay’s decision to put the interests of
    the American people, the House of Representatives and the Republican
    Party first,” Bush spokeswoman Erin Healy said.

    Democrats have made clear they plan to make GOP corruption a centerpiece campaign theme. They pounced.

    “Tom
    DeLay bears much of the responsibility for the culture of corruption
    Republicans have created in Washington, D.C., but his removal from
    House leadership alone will not end the pervasive cronyism and
    corruption that he and Washington Republicans created,” said Senate
    Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

    The anti-corruption tact
    gives Democrats the opportunity to overcome bad fractures within their
    party as well as their lack of a cohesive message. An AP-Ipsos poll
    last month showed that 88 percent of Americans say that corruption
    reaching into all levels of government is a serious problem.

    Bush
    had hoped to rescue both his and his party’s political fortunes by
    turning a new page in 2006 and focusing on immigration reform, good
    economic news and turning around public opinion on Iraq.

    But I.
    Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick
    Cheney, is expected to stand trial in the CIA leak case this summer,
    just ahead of the midterm elections. The special prosecutor’s inquiry
    continues, leaving the fate of other senior White House officials,
    notably Bush’s deputy chief of staff and political guru Karl Rove, in
    doubt.

    And the election for a new House majority leader will
    serve as a reminder of the GOP’s troubles right when Bush is unveiling
    his election-year agenda. The House reconvenes the week of Jan. 30,
    with the election likely to be held right away. Bush’s annual State of
    the Union address is tentatively scheduled for that week.

    Missouri
    Rep. Roy Blunt, the GOP whip who temporarily has filled in for DeLay
    and is expected to run to permanently take his place, also could suffer
    from his association with Abramoff. He was among many lawmakers who
    refunded or gave to charity some or all of the donations they received
    from Abramoff, his associates or clients.

    Though House Speaker
    Dennis Hastert’s position seems secure, some are calling for a wider
    leadership shake up that would be messy and distracting. “The
    conference needs the ability to reassess the leadership team as a
    whole,” said Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Pa.

    ___

    Jennifer Loven has reported from Washington for nine years. Associated
    Press writer Douglass K. Daniel contributed to this analysis.

    © 2006 The Associated Press