Republican troubles deepen

Tom DeLay's indictment this week sidelines a key White House ally on the Hill.

Just when Washington Republicans thought things could not get much worse, they did.

The indictment Wednesday of House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas on a money-laundering conspiracy charge adds to a litany of GOP woes that could consume the party for months. Even the easy confirmation of John Roberts Thursday as chief justice could bring only a short respite if President Bush's next Supreme Court nomination, as early as Friday, triggers a political donnybrook.

But the legal troubles of Mr. DeLay, which have forced him out of the House leadership for now, present more than just a challenge to his own future. For Mr. Bush, the indictment takes his most skilled legislative ally out of the game at a time when the president was already struggling to enact an ambitious second-term agenda and overcome criticism over the war in Iraq, the federal response to hurricanes, high gas prices, and a soaring deficit.

DeLay could be acquitted, of course, bolstering his claim that he is the victim of an aggressively partisan Texas prosecutor. If he gets the speedy trial his lawyers seek, and convinces a jury he is not guilty of the single charge he faces, his legal troubles could be cleared up in a matter of months, well before he faces voters again in 2006. Some Republicans are skeptical, though, that DeLay's legal process could have a cleansing effect.

"I have to tell you ... the press is not sympathetic to our party and will therefore be less willing to let this go," says Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado. "We'll be dealing with this for a long time."

Indeed, even if DeLay is acquitted, that will not expunge his record of admonishments by the House Ethics Committee for his actions as a fundraiser and enforcer of political loyalty. Democrats have tried to demonize DeLay for years.

Now, he faces a charge that he conspired with two aides to violate a Texas law that bars the use of corporate money to fund candidates for state office. The money was allegedly funneled to Texas via the Republican National Committee.

Public perceptions of corruption in Washington raise memories of the 1994 electoral tsunami that swept the Democrats out of power in Congress. For the 2005 Republicans, DeLay's problems are just the latest piece of bad news: Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is under federal investigation over a stock sale. The Bush administration's top federal procurement official, David Safavian, was arrested this month and accused of obstructing a criminal investigation into GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff - who also has ties to DeLay. And a cloud still hangs over top Bush aides in a probe into the leak of a CIA agent's identity.

Are Republicans worried they could face the same fate as the Democrats of 1994? "We'd be whistling past the graveyard to think this won't be a problem for us," says Mr. Tancredo. "I don't think I've ever seen a more difficult road ahead for the Republican Party."

Charlie Cook, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter, says it would still take a tidal wave for the Democrats to take over the House and Senate - but recent developments "are how tidal waves are created."

Early this year, Democrats had already signaled they were going to follow the Republican playbook of 1994 - calling the majority party arrogant, ideological, out of touch, and corrupt, regardless of events, Mr. Cook notes. Now, he writes, "these stories against DeLay and Frist help build the Democratic case."

In a time of intense partisanship, there's always a possibility that Democrats will overplay their hand. And polls show the Democrats have not gained much from the Republicans' loss in approval - though in generic polls, a majority of the public now says it would prefer having a Democratic representative in Washington than a Republican. The Democrats themselves know they have to craft a distinct and compelling agenda - and recruit top-notch candidates - to build a successful tidal wave.

Republican activists insist that the party can hold onto its congressional majorities. "We'll be fine in the next cycle," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership. "We may lose one or two tough races, but I don't see a bloodbath coming."

One unknown is how the White House, and Bush's political guru, Karl Rove, will manage the DeLay situation in months to come. If DeLay's legal troubles are perceived as dragging on Bush's ability to salvage his second term, there may be an attempt to replace DeLay permanently as House majority leader.

Roy Blunt file

House Republicans chose party whip Roy Blunt to replace Tom DeLay, at least for now, as majority leader.

• Born: Jan. 10, 1950

• Education: Bachelor's degree in history, Southwest Baptist University; master's in history, Southwest Missouri State.

• Career: Clerk of Green County, Mo. (1973-1984); Missouri secretary of State (1985-1993); president of Southwest Baptist University (1993-1996); member of US Congress since 1997; became Republican whip - responsible for corralling votes to support the GOP agenda - in 2003.

• Notes: Known for easy-going manner; has close ties to Bush administration; staunch defender of Mr. DeLay; strong conservative voting record; instrumental in passage of CAFTA and Bush's tax cuts.

• Family: Wife Abigail (lobbyist), and children Matt (governor of Missouri), Andy (attorney), and Amy (attorney).

• Quote: "What we do here is more important than who we are."

Correspondent Monica Campbell contributed to this report.

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