Republicans scramble to pick new leader after Tom DeLay bows out

His resignation as House majority leader may help the GOP's image, but it loses a key disciplinarian.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BlackBerrys and cellphones buzzed into overtime this weekend, as House Republicans grappled with what had been rumored for months: the need to elect a leader to replace Tom DeLay.

From a public-relations standpoint, the decision by Mr. DeLay not to keep his post as House majority leader may give Republicans a boost ahead of this year's midterm elections. After all, he had gone from whip to whipping boy amid complaints that he embodied corruption in Congress

But by losing DeLay's leadership, Republicans also lose his fundraising prowess and peerless talent for enforcing party discipline on key bills. As importantly, they marginalize the architect of a alliance between House members and lobbyists - a network that strengthened the party's hand in moving legislation, but left it open to charges of influence peddling.

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"DeLay became a political liability, but he was also a strong leader," says political analyst Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report. "The leadership team cobbled together in DeLay's absence just hasn't worked out."

In the end, that nexus of politics and cash appeared to tip the outcome. The prospect of DeLay appearing in court this year was too much for a GOP caucus looking for a way out of the ethical clouds - and a new public face for elections.

The endgame came faster than most members expected. The legal woes of DeLay, Indicted for money laundering by a Texas grand jury last October, deepened last week after a federal plea agreement by ex-superlobbyist Jack Abramoff - a move many in his own caucus expected would put DeLay in still deeper legal jeopardy.

By Friday, conservative columnists - and moderate Republican House members - were calling for DeLay to step down.

In a letter to colleagues on Saturday, DeLay said that he had always "acted in an ethical manner within the rules of our body and the laws of our land" and that he was "fully confident time will bear this out." He resigned as majority leader to help the House focus on the job of protecting the nation, he said.

Two top contenders to replace DeLay early next month are also two of the party's strongest fundraisers: Acting majority leader Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who announced his bid Sunday, "... to restore a sense of trust among ... the American people."

Mr. Blunt, like Speaker Dennis Hastert, came to power through DeLay's well-oiled whip operation. Steady and methodical, he was elected to replace DeLay as party whip in November 2002 without opposition. But his operation has stumbled on some big votes, emboldening other contenders.

As a freshman lawmaker, Mr. Boehner led an ethical reform campaign after the House banking scandal and other improprieties came to light - an anticorruption theme that helped Republicans take back the House in 1994. As chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, he helped negotiate bipartisan support for President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative. Last month, he stepped in to salvage his committee's pension bill, after Blunt said he couldn't find the votes to pass it. His impromptu whip operation impressed colleagues.

But some Republicans say that the Abramoff scandal threatens GOP control of the House and calls for a drastic overhaul.

"We don't just need new leaders; we need a course correction," says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, who called for DeLay's resignation.

Democrats, meanwhile, say the DeLay resignation isn't sufficient to clear the air. "The culture of corruption is so pervasive in the Republican conference that a single person stepping down is not nearly enough ...," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, in a statement.

Those looking to take over as majority whip, should Blunt's bid falter, include Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia, Mike Rogers of Michigan, and Zach Wamp of Tennessee, running as an outsider. "I'm certainly not supported by K Street [lobbyists]. That may be an asset today," Representative Wamp says.

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