The gap between what House Republicans say on the record about their embattled leader Tom DeLay and what they say in private is wide but narrowing.
In public, most Republicans say that what's driving the criticism of the House majority leader is politics, not ethics. The Democratic "hit machine" is pouring millions into a campaign to oust the most powerful Republican in Congress. But the real target is the Republican majority and its agenda.
But in private, some senior leaders are saying it's only a matter of time before the most powerful Republican in Congress is forced from office. "Democrats should save their money. Why murder someone who is committing suicide?" said a senior GOP lawmaker, on condition of anonymity.
Over the weekend, such guarded views began to emerge into the public sphere. Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut became the first Republican lawmaker to call openly for DeLay's ouster. On ABC's "This Week," GOP Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, another Republican expecting a tough race in 2006, said that DeLay needs to "lay out what he did and why."
It's a battle with historic parallels in an institution where it is not unusual for partisan power struggles to play out as controversies over ethics - with a powerful leader as target. Democrats' focus on DeLay, for example, mirrors the GOP campaign to topple Speaker Jim Wright (D), but on a much wider scale. Minority Republicans, led by Rep. Newt Gingrich, choreographed a "gathering storm" in the media around Mr. Wright, whose fall from power in 1989 was triggered by a book deal with the Teamsters Union. Mr. Gingrich made a special effort to draw good-government groups, such as Common Cause, to the fight.
In recent weeks, Democrats and activists who helped fund the 2004 presidential campaign have created their own "good government" coalitions to target DeLay. Billionaire George Soros's Open Society Institute has contributed some $2.5 million to ethics coalition groups.
"Republicans are suffering from what once helped them gain power," says Marshall Wittman, a former conservative activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council. "While nothing DeLay has done may be illegal, Republicans based their takeover on a revolution to make things different. I was part of it. Now, they're outdoing anything Wright did in terms of power. DeLay has intimidated the whole business community."
Last year, the House ethics committee Rebuked DeLay for the appearance of favorable treatment to a lobbyist, misuse of a federal agency in a Texas redistricting dispute, and an "improper" offer to a colleague in exchange for his vote.
More recently, published reports have questioned travel expenses for DeLay and his staff paid for by lobbyists, and some $500,000 in payments from his political action committee to his wife and daughter.
After the ethics warning, House Republicans dropped their own 10-year-old rule requiring a leader who is criminally indicted to step down, a move they reversed at the beginning of the current Congress. GOP leaders also rallied their caucus around changes in House rules that make it more difficult to launch an ethics investigation, replaced three of the five Republicans on the panel, and fired two top committee staff members.
In protest, Democrats, who have five seats on the 10-seat panel, are refusing to allow the committee to function until the rules are changed.
At the same time, Democratic groups are funding ads in DeLay's Texas district, in conservative newspapers, and major new stations in Washington. Last week, the Campaign for America's Future ran ads in districts of other Republicans, tarring them with DeLay's troubles. Those targeted include Rep. Rob Simmons (R) of Connecticut, Rep. Tom Reynolds (R) of New York, who chairs the Republican National Committee, and Rep. Doc Hastings (R) of Washington, the newly appointed House ethics chairman.
In 1998, GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich - another powerful leader who faced an ethics scandal - resigned after electoral losses signaled that his leadership had become a liability to fellow GOP candidates. There is some evidence that the anti-DeLay media campaigns may take hold. A recent Houston Chronicle poll found that DeLay was losing support in his own district. Democrats say they are prepared to nationally fund a candidate against him in 2006, for the first time.
While the "gathering storm" has yet to hit local conservative talk radio as it has the national news media, there are also signs that the ethics allegations are beginning to rankle the GOP's conservative base. "Personal ethics are very important to the average evangelical," says the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. "When a person is seen to profit from their political connections, it doesn't speak well for that individual."
But he adds that he is not prepared to call for DeLay's ouster "because of appearances.... There's a benefit of the doubt."
Republicans are trying to rally their base, including key think tanks, to defend the majority leader. "Tom DeLay is a Ronald Reagan Republican and a firm fixture within the conservative movement in our country. These two things - combined with his effective leadership - make him an inviting target to liberals and Democrats, as well as the media elite," according to a set of talking points recently circulated by the Republican National Committee.