The Debate on DeLay

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House Republicans last week gave Tom DeLay a nice reward for helping the G.O.P. win five extra seats from his home state of Texas in the congressional elections: a rule change so he won't automatically have to step aside as majority leader if an Austin grand jury indicts him in a campaign-finance probe. But despite a public show of solidarity, Republican Congressmen tell TIME there was a bitter debate behind closed doors over whether to change the rule for the man known as "the Hammer," and it has left some Republicans angry and concerned that their party looks arrogant. During a private caucus last Wednesday, more than 200 G.O.P. lawmakers argued for four hours over a proposal by Texas Representative Henry Bonilla, a DeLay loyalist, to do away with an 11-year-old party rule requiring leaders to relinquish their posts if indicted. DeLay, who stood in the back of the room and remained silent, insists he didn't orchestrate the change. Under the new rules, the party's steering committee will review an indictment and recommend whether the accused should step aside, and then all House Republicans will decide.

As many as 50 G.O.P. Representatives shouted, "No!" when the voice vote over the rule change was held, sources in the room told TIME.

Angry moderates like Connecticut Representative Chris Shays pointed out that Republicans adopted the rule in 1993 when they were trying to seize control of the House from Democrats by spotlighting the ethical and legal troubles of the opposition's leaders. "Now we're starting to act like the very people we defeated," Shays told TIME afterward. Even some of DeLay's ideological soulmates were outraged.

Arizona Representative J.D. Hayworth wouldn't comment to TIME on what he said in the caucus. But other Congressmen who were there say the conservative gave an impassioned speech, warning his colleagues that the backlash from the rule change could "jeopardize the very majority [DeLay] has worked so hard to build."