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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2005

'The Hammer' could be his own worst enemy

WASHINGTON - We all have a lot that worries us. So why do we have to spend two minutes pondering Tom DeLay?

"The Hammer," as the congressman from Texas is called - not altogether with affection - is the House majority leader. He also is the central character in one of those juicy political scandals that pop up just a little too regularly.

Some think President Bush may wish he'd never heard of Mr. DeLay, a former pest exterminator who may have morphed into a bigger pest than he ever eradicated back in Texas.

Some Democrats think that if their prayers are answered, Mr. DeLay will follow former House speakers Newt Gingrich, the outspoken Georgia Republican, and Jim Wright, who was a Texas Democrat, out the door of the House because of ethics questions.

Republicans control the House and the Senate. But in the House, real power has been controlled for some time by The Hammer.

It was Mr. DeLay who forced the House and the Senate, which were in recess, to return for a vote to intervene in the courts' decision to pull Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. Mr. Bush rushed back from his ranch to sign the bill to order the courts to take up the case again. The ploy didn't work, and after a sad, emotional drama, she died. Two-thirds of Americans were angry that Congress intervened in a family matter, and Mr. Bush's job approval rating sank to its lowest level thus far in his presidency.

But that's not why Mr. Delay is in trouble.

He has been "admonished" three times by the House Ethics Committee. He is the subject of a campaign fund-raising investigation in Texas and associates are being probed for how they redrew congressional districts in the state. His political action committee and campaign committee paid his wife and his daughter more than $500,000 since 2001.

There are questions about corporate lobbyists who paid for his overseas travel and what might have been expected in return. There are allegations that he defanged the House Ethics Committee, deposing its chair, its staff, and two members thought to be too critical of Mr. DeLay.

That gave House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California the opening to attack. She said a few days ago, "The fact is that there is no ethics committee. It has been completely gutted by the Republicans. And this should be a cause of great outrage, really, in the country."

There are no charges that Mr. DeLay violated any law. Mr. DeLay, with his usual penchant for putting up his dukes, says all this is "another seedy attempt by the liberal media to embarrass me."

The 232 Republicans of the House have united, behind closed doors, to defend their leader, saying one of their best fund-raisers ever is a victim of partisan politics. (Never mind that in any modern dictionary, the definition of partisanship at its most piercing is "Tom DeLay." )

But even some loyal Republicans are beginning to wince at Mr. DeLay's in-your-face tactics and the storms constantly swirling about him. They say they're weary of having to continue rising to his defense when they should be tending to the country's business. In his own district outside Houston, Mr. DeLay would lose his seat if an election were held right now, according to a poll taken this month.

Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.), regularly crosses swords with Mr. DeLay, most recently over the Schiavo vote, raising constitutional issues that troubled many of his colleagues, although they voted with Mr. DeLay.

Mr. Frank says his concern is that Mr. DeLay might be forced out of the House too soon before next year's congressional elections and that voters would forget about him. Mr. Frank jokes about printing bumper stickers: "Justice DeLayed is justice denied."

In politics it's often the "big picture" and "public perception" and "guilt by association" and one public relations mistake too many that undo a politician. A power-wielder such as the uncharismatic Mr. DeLay does his best work offstage, manning the phones, working the angles behind the scenes. When the spotlight swings to light him and he starts flailing and missing his cues, even friends get nervous.

If Mr. DeLay isn't careful to squeeze back out of the limelight and regain his footing, he will become the fall guy for Republicans. Already, it may be too late. Democrats, desperate for an issue, think they have a good one if they can hog-tie the undaunted Mr. DeLay with high gasoline prices, insinuations of corporate influence, rearranging the rules for his own purposes, and the unseemly practice of lining his wife's pocketbooks with campaign contributions.

If so, members of the public who think about Mr. DeLay in the future will be working on crossword puzzles.



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