Washington's long-awaited "A-bomb" has gone off.
Super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea Tuesday to three felony counts sets the stage for the biggest congressional scandal perhaps in decades, certainly since the Republicans took over Congress 10 years ago, pledging clean government.
In exchange for his guilty pleas, in both the Washington case and a separate Florida case in which he was indicted last year, Mr. Abramoff will cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating members of Congress, Capitol Hill aides, and other lobbyists. Political players with ties to Abramoff and his network, who knew the lobbyist was preparing to cut a deal, have been sweating for months. Now they're sweating harder.
Though members of both parties are involved, analysts expect Republicans - who control both houses of Congress - to bear the brunt of the political fallout. Abramoff, who has close ties to former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas, allegedly funneled campaign donations to lawmakers, who were treated to lavish trips and meals, in exchange for official acts.
"It could end some careers," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the non- partisan Cook Political report.
Stanley Brand, a Washington defense lawyer and former Democratic counsel to the House, predicts at least six members of Congress and at least as many staff will be convicted by the end of the year.
Besides Representative DeLay, who is already under indictment in Texas, other members who are already battling allegations over their associations with Abramoff include Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana, Rep. Bob Ney (R) of Ohio, and Rep. John Doolittle (R) of California.
Federal campaign records show that about 220 members of Congress received some $1.7 million in political contributions from Abramoff and his associates and clients, including American Indian tribes, between 2001 and 2004. According to Bloomberg news service, 201 of those members are still in Congress; Republicans received 64 percent of that money.
Since the whiff of scandal began to emerge around Abramoff, members have been rushing to return his contributions or donate the money to charity. But not everyone who ever took Abramoff-related money or perks is guilty of wrongdoing.
"It's not enough to take a campaign contribution," says Mr. Brand. "What's criminal is accepting the contribution in return for an express agreement to perform an official act. Beyond campaign contributions, one can't accept bribes or gratuities of any kind in return for official acts." Members of the executive branch may also be implicated in the investigation, he says.
"The line between a bribe and a legal contribution is very thin, but it is that line that keeps you out of jail," says Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "The critical element is whether there was an understanding or agreement to take specific action in return for the money."
Abramoff joins former associate Michael Scanlon, former press secretary to DeLay, as a witness for the prosecution. Mr. Scanlon reached a plea deal last year, which raised the stakes for Abramoff. The Department of Justice says the two men defrauded Indian tribes they represented out of tens of millions of dollars.
In exchange for the guilty plea and cooperation, Abramoff would probably get a reduced prison sentence. In the Washington case, he faces a maximum of 10 years; in the Florida case, in which he is pleading guilty to fraud and conspiracy in the purchase of a casino cruise line, he could get as many as seven years.
"Up until now, I've said it will involve just a few members," says Mr. Noble. "But if they've reached a plea agreement with Abramoff, it means he's turned over people higher than him, and they must have some pretty strong evidence.
The explosion of the Abramoff scandal also represents bad news for the White House, just as President Bush is preparing for his Jan. 31 State of the Union speech - an effort to build on the momentum he started last month, after a stumbling first year to his second term.
All of Washington is looking ahead to next November's midterm elections, and whether Congress's low approval ratings and Republican woes in particular can grow big enough to swing control of one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats. Polls show that so far, the Democrats' charge that Republicans have created a "culture of corruption" has not seeped into public consciousness. But, analysts say, the 2006 campaign has not started in earnest, and it's too soon to say how the public is perceiving the corruption message.
"This will crowd out a lot of the news about the new Bush agenda," says Paul Light, a political scientist at New York University. "He'll be going up to the Hill to present his agenda, and meanwhile you have six, 12, 20 members desperately trying to return money to Abramoff, and another bunch wondering how they will look in an orange jump suit."
If the Bush White House tries to minimize the scandal, "it feeds the view that Bush doesn't take ethics seriously," says Professor Light. Last year, a top White House aide, I. Lewis Libby, was indicted in the scandal surrounding the public revelation of a CIA agent's identity.
For Congress as an institution, the Abramoff scandal reinforces prevailing attitudes that are already set in stone, says Light, who has studied the issue of trust in politics. "The American public has become inured to congressional scandals, and as long as members are bringing home enough pork, they basically say, a pox on both their houses."