All Eyes On DeLay

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At first, it was easy to believe that the storm clouds gathering around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay signaled little more than another Washington tempest. After all, most Republicans reassured themselves, hardly anybody outside the Beltway or DeLay's district in Sugar Land, Texas, had even heard of the Congressman, much less cared about his inflammatory comments about judges or his overseas junkets that might have been paid for by lobbyists. But not any more. Letters and phone calls to congressional offices about DeLay have picked up sharply of late, an aide to the House GOP leadership says. The Majority Leader has become a punchline for late-night comedians; two weeks ago, he was the subject of the lead skit on Saturday Night Live. And one national poll, by Democrat Stan Greenberg, shows DeLay's name recognition at 77%—making him more famous than any other House member in modern history, except Newt Gingrich.

What's different is that GOP lawmakers are now starting to hear about Delay when they go back home to their districts. An article in his state's largest newspaper took note of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt's strong defense of the man who stands one rung above him in the House leadership. BLUNT MUST WALK FINE LINE ON DELAY, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared two weekends ago. MISSOURI CONGRESSMAN COULD FACE SCRUTINY. The DeLay saga is playing in Peoria, judging from the questions that Illinois Republican Ray LaHood is suddenly getting there. And Indiana's Mark Souder has found himself answering questions about the embattled Majority Leader at a fundraiser in his district, as well as on the plane rides to and from home. "Nobody knew who Tom DeLay is. Now they do," says Souder. "The stage is different now." And Souder says Delay new prominence means he has to behave differently: "He's got to control his anger. It's got to be a friendlier face."

In DeLay's own district, Republicans are so alarmed they are already mobilizing to defend him in an election that is still nearly a year and half away. Says Jared Woodfill, GOP chairman in nearby Harris county: "We're getting e-mails and calls from the base, the precinct chairs and the phone bank people saying what can we do to help now? Usually that doesn't happen until six months before an election."

Republicans are so eager to change the storyline that House Speaker Dennis Hastert got a standing ovation when he announced, at a private meeting with House Republicans in the Capitol basement last week, that he was ready to sound a retreat on changes in House ethics rules that he engineered last December. Democrats on the House ethics committee, which is the only one where they hold as many seats as Republicans, had shut it down to protest a rule change that required the support of a majority of committee members before any investigation could proceed. They charged that it had been designed to give Republicans a veto against any probe of DeLay. The about-face by Republicans on the rules was so sudden that Alan Mollohan, the top Democrat on the ethics committee, was still reading the resolution as he went to the House Rules Committee to testify in favor of it. It passed the House 406-20.

Of all the questions that now surround DeLay, the most explosive concern his office's close relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is the subject of several investigations centered on his dealings with his Indian tribe clients and the management of tax-exempt charities he set up. Abramoff may have funded, at least indirectly, some of DeLay's most controversial overseas travel. Two weeks ago, TIME reported that when DeLay traveled to Britain in 2000, on a trip ostensibly arranged and paid for by a non-profit organization, his congressional staff turned to Abramoff to arrange the trip, and made extensive demands of Abramoff's office—for expensive hotel rooms, and even tickets to the "Lion King." Two sources say the London trip itself was the idea of DeLay's staff, not Abramoff or the non-profit National Center for Public Policy Research, where Abramoff was a board member. That could run afoul of House ethics rules that prohibit lawmakers and their staffs from soliciting gifts from lobbyists. And TIME reported last week that top members of DeLay's staff accepted expensive gifts from Abramoff, also in apparent violation of House ethics rules. Among those gifts, sources say, were high-end golf equipment, theater and sports tickets. Abramoff even used his own frequent flyer miles and hotel points to send Tony Rudy, a top DeLay aide at the time, on a weekend getaway, the sources said. Rudy did not respond to requests for comment.

DeLay says he had no way of knowing Abramoff's role in setting up the Britain trip and adds he welcomes a chance to tell his side of the story before the ethics committee. He is tired to being tried in the media, the Majority Leader told his GOP colleagues at the private session last week. "I want to have the opportunity to clear my name."

Will the fact that the ethics committee is back in business take some of the heat off DeLay? At best, Republicans say, it could give him some time to organize his defense—and make some Democrats sweat, as Republicans start aiming ethics charges their way. But when a scandal starts to take on a momentum of its own, says Souder, who is an ardent conservative and DeLay supporter, "you have to ask how much are you hurting the movement. Tom has to make that decision. The question is, can he get justice?" One thing DeLay can count on: The entire country will be watching.