DeLay Resignation Snarls GOP

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A Texas grand jury Wednesday indicted Representative Tom DeLay and two associates on charges of conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme. In response, DeLay, who insists he is innocent, has temporarily stepped down from his post as House majority leader.

The indictment comes at a particularly bad moment for the Republican Party. Already on the defensive over soaring gas prices, the war in Iraq and the mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina response, the GOP now faces a national scandal and forced resignation of its House Majority leader, a tough blow for a party feeling deeply insecure about its mid-term election prospects next year. Some House insiders were already urging the National Republican Congressional Committee to approach the mid-term election as if they had between 80-100 seats in play, a sign of just how worried some members are about a pro-Democrat backlash across the country. In that atmosphere, DeLay's indictment foretells a period of internal wrangling among the party leadership in the House that is likely to keep the GOP back on its heels well into the winter.

DeLay is acting as if this is a battle he can still win, declaring his intention to step aside only temporarily in order to exonerate himself. But the timing could hardly be worse for him. A very public rift between DeLay and fiscal hawks led by Indiana Rep. Mike Pence over how to finance Katrina reconstruction had left DeLay's erstwhile conservative base on the Hill angry and rebellious. DeLay had steamrolled Pence over whether to fund reconstruction with cuts, saying there was no more fat to trim in the budget. Pence's allies, seeing him publicly rebuked, are hardly in the mood to rally behind the outgoing Majority leader.

DeLay has always been popular for his care and feeding of the party faithful, but now has three strikes against him—his break with the conservative base over Katrina, the fact that he has had to crack heads on a number of close votes already this session, including CAFTA and now the national attention this will bring at a time when candidates are already looking for cover.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert found out just how deep that unease ran when he attempted to name a temporary replacement, chairman of the Rules Committee and leadership player David Dreier. Party conservatives rebelled over Dreier's moderate positions on gay marriage, stem cells and other issues, forcing Hastert to roll out a compromise power sharing arrangement between Dreier and the GOP whip, Roy Blunt of Missouri. That arrangement will remain in place through the first of the year, Hastert told Republicans today. The key things members will be looking for in a permanent Leader are whether the person can eventually replace Hastert and can help raise money for the crucial 2006 elections. Important for conservative activists like Pence will be whether they provide strong ideological leadership that can mobilize the base. Under the circumstances, DeLay will have to muster all his political capital to convince members to stick with him through the current crisis.