When Tom Met Jack

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ZIV KOREN / POLARIS

Dynamic Duo: House majority leader Tom DeLay called lobbyist Jack Abramoff one of his "dearest" friends

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It was easy for DeLay's allies to dismiss signs of erosion in his support early last week when they were largely confined to criticism by moderate Republican Congressman Chris Shays, often a voice of dissent within the ranks. But it was more difficult after 10 former Congressmen, all Republicans, signed a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert imploring him to reverse recent revisions in the House rules that were apparently designed to shield DeLay from being investigated by the ethics committee. What's more, conservative Tom Tancredo of Colorado, while professing his confidence in DeLay's innocence, told his hometown paper that it's "probably not the worst idea" for DeLay to step down as leader until he resolves the ethical controversies that are springing up around him.

The White House is publicly standing behind a leader whose legislative abilities Bush respects and needs for the fights ahead.

Bush still calls DeLay a friend, although spokesman Scott McClellan pointedly noted last week that "there are different levels of friendship." The President's team is increasingly frustrated by the majority leader's inability to mount a defense more persuasive than blaming his problems on a liberal conspiracy. DeLay, says a senior Administration official, "is handling this like an idiot."

Having seen how a succession of Democratic leaders fell a decade ago, DeLay should know better than anyone how it tends to happen. Again and again, it was not big violations of the law or congressional rules that landed Washington power brokers in trouble as much as smaller lapses in judgment: House Speaker Jim Wright over how his book was being sold, Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski over his exchange of stamps for cash at the House post office, Democratic whip Tony Coelho over a questionable junk-bond investment, and eight lawmakers who lost their seats in 1992 in part over checks they bounced at the House bank.

For DeLay, it is hard to imagine that any lapse was greater than the cozy relationship he allowed to grow between his office and Abramoff.

The lobbyist's activities might have stayed under the radar had a newspaper in Alexandria, La., not reported the startling fact that a local Indian tribe was paying Abramoff's associate Scanlon $13.7 million for public relations work. Subsequent investigations uncovered a flood of e-mail between Abramoff and Scanlon, in which they referred to their Indian clients as, among other epithets, "monkeys" and "losers," even as they charged these clients fees that totaled upward of $66 million. It's far from clear what, precisely, the tribes were getting for their investment. In one instance, Abramoff and Scanlon secretly maneuvered to shut down a Texas casino operated by the Tiguas—only to turn around and offer their services to get it reopened for a fee of more than $125,000 a month.

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