"A good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich."
That was the mantra within the House Republican Conference last month, when members met behind closed doors to drop their own 10-year rule requiring a leader who is criminally indicted to step down. This week, they voted it back, unanimously.
What happened between the two votes is that some members heard from constituents, and others worried they might start hearing. The outcome is shifting the prospects for majority leader Tom DeLay, whose potential legal woes inspired the move to change the House ethics rules.
"What I heard was that the 'reform Congress' might be in danger of losing its moorings," says Rep. J. D. Hayworth (R) of Arizona, who passed that message along to party leaders over the break.
Rep. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut puts it another way. "We see ourselves as protecting the reputation of a colleague," he says. "The general public sees us as a club that doesn't do as good a job as it should in cleaning its own house."
It's a backlash that GOP leaders didn't expect, and some still deny, including Mr. DeLay. "There was very little fallout," he said on Tuesday. "Most members went home and didn't hear a word, except those with constituents with New York Times subscriptions."
But the Texas Republican concedes the ethics flap has given Democrats a big opening at the start of the 109th Congress. DeLay says the decision to reverse the rule change was his idea. "I was looking at what the Democrats were doing ... and didn't want to give Democrats ammunition on the first day of swearing in," he said.
No one is yet calling for DeLay's ouster, even potential rivals to succeed him. That call, should it ever come, waits on events. One is the outcome of a grand jury investigation in Austin, Texas, where three DeLay associates have been indicted for raising political funds from corporations. Another is the ongoing Senate investigation into how two other former aides earned tens of millions in fees from Indian casino gambling while touting their ties to DeLay.
But anytime a leader becomes the issue, it's a problem. "DeLay's fate now depends on what happens in Texas and, to a secondary degree, what happens to [former DeLay associate] Jack Abramoff in the Senate," says congressional analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "If he isn't indicted and brazens his way through this, he's still shown a pattern of hubris and overreach that's likely to cause stumbles down the road."
As even his opponents concede, DeLay is a skilled politician. His ability to eke out close votes helped move a Republican agenda through a closely divided House. His engineering of a mid-cycle redistricting plan in Texas netted the GOP five House seats in the 2004 vote. In addition to a record of favors for members, he is as well connected with the GOP base as he is with K Street lobbyists and big donors.
But the take-no-prisoners style that produced victories on the floor and millions for colleagues' campaigns also contributed to his ethical troubles. In 1997, the ethics panel warned DeLay to avoid making statements that give the impression that lawmakers are trading "access or official action" for campaign contributions. In 1999, he was privately rebuked for pressuring a trade association not to hire a Democrat. Last fall, he was admonished three times on issues ranging from an offer to endorse a colleague's son in exchange for his vote to arranging a fundraiser with industry lobbyists on the eve of a big energy vote, creating the appearance of special access.
Unlike former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who resigned in 1998 following a corruption probe and GOP losses in midterm elections, DeLay has never sought a big national name. He often avoids national media in favor of local radio networks. What Republicans learned from the Gingrich downfall is that a big name can mean a big target.
Privately, some senior Republican leaders say that DeLay has lost a lot of ground in the reversal over ethics rules. "He spent all his capital on this," says one. "DeLay is becoming the issue," says another. "The visuals aren't good," says a senior GOP aide.
"What fueled the Republican takeover in '94 was the perception that the Democrats were corrupt and ossified. That's why DeLay is such a potential liability for Republicans," says Marshall Wittman, a former GOP activist now with the Demo cratic Leadership Council.
Even though GOP leaders dropped the most controversial features of their ethics overhaul, they did muscle through a rule change that scuttles an investigation if no action has been taken in 45 days or if the panel is tied. Democrats say these, too, undermine the ethics system.