In a tribute to DeLay, a bid for party loyalty

Amid ethics questions, the powerful House leader seeks anchor in his GOP base as he headlines a gala event.

Thursday night's tribute to embattled House majority leader Tom DeLay at the Capitol Hilton aims to send a message to GOP colleagues contemplating jumping ship: Do so at your peril.

President Bush won't be there, but a near who's who of Washington's conservative establishment will. ("Near" is the operative word: Absences will be noted.)

"The tribute is a statement to him: You're not alone. We'll stand by you. And it's to say to people in this town: If you pick a fight with him, you've got us to contend with," says organizer Cleta Mitchell, a GOP election lawyer on the board of the American Conservative Union. "Our target for that message is Republicans in the House and the Senate," she adds.

So far, only a handful of Mr. DeLay's GOP colleagues have publicly distanced themselves from him, including Reps. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, Thomas Tancredo (R) and ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom Mr. DeLay once conspired to topple.

But with the House ethics committee back in business, a new investigation into DeLay's travel and ties to lobbyists is ramping up. At the same time, an ongoing grand-jury investigation into alleged illegal corporate contributions involving DeLay associates in Texas fuels ethics concerns.

Also - and for the first time - the 11-term lawmaker faces a credible electoral threat. Former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) of Texas announced last week that he will challenge DeLay in 2006. Political handicappers give him a shot in a race sure to attract millions in outside money.

Ironically, the Texas redistricting plan, engineered by DeLay, that helped defeat Lampson in 2004 - and add five seats to the GOP majority in the House - now makes it tougher for DeLay to hold his own seat, which took on about 20 percent of Lampson's former district.

"The architect of the redistricting proposal had to take his lumps, too, in drawing these lines and taking on new areas," says Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report. Also, "these allegations and problems are taking a serious toll on [DeLay's] standing, even in his own district," she adds.

Sponsors of Thursday night's tribute say DeLay is the most effective GOP legislator in Congress, and they can't afford to lose him. "The reason why conservatives are sticking with DeLay is that he has always been for them on issues," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a sponsor.

Other sponsors include David Keene of the American Conservative Union (ACU), Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Gary Bauer of American Values, and Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., of the American Spectator - key contacts for conservatives aspiring to higher office.

Organizers say they have not solicited K Street lobbyists to buy up tables at Thursday night's event. "We knew that if we went to them, we could sell the tables in no time, but we did not want the event to be viewed that way," says Ms. Mitchell of the ACU. "The press would make it sound like some dirty thing."

Conservatives credit DeLay for grinding out close votes in the House on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to tax cuts in every year of the Bush presidency. They want him around to make those tax cuts permanent, rein in trial lawyers and the courts, and fight the culture wars. His tactics in a three-hour predawn vote on the Medicare prescription-drug bill earned a rebuke from the House ethics panel, but the bill became law.

It's that willingness to take political risks that makes DeLay so vital to conservative activists, and so perilous. His effectiveness in office is also important to the Bush White House. "With his ambitious legislative agenda, the president needs a strong majority leader to push that through," says Ms. Walter.

As in the cases of previous embattled congressional leaders, the support of the White House can steady a toppling career or undermine it. When Senate majority leader Trent Lott stood up to honor retiring colleague Strom Thurmond at a tribute on Dec. 5, 2002, his racially tinged toast - broadcast live - set off a firestorm:

GOP colleagues distanced themselves, the Bush White House asked him to step down, and 15 days later, he did.

But unlike Senator Lott (who stayed on in the Senate and is regaining stature), DeLay has always carefully nurtured ties to the party's conservative base.

He won points with conservatives for pushing for the impeachment of President Clinton, at a time when others were urging caution. He won the respect of GOP House colleagues for openly admitting his role in the 1997 coup against Gingrich, at a time when others did not.

"He's put decades into developing action items with the conservative leaders headlining this dinner," says Mike Franc, head of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "Now, he's reaping the fruits of that."

It's a message that won't be lost on the Bush White House, analysts say.

"The White House would have preferred some distance, but DeLay has maneuvered the White House into a position where they must support DeLay because of his contacts with the base," says Marshall Wittman, a former conservative activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council. "When in doubt, you go to the safest port, and the safest port for Tom DeLay is the hard-core base of the Republican Party."

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