DeLay to Play Low-Key Convention Role

Republicans are putting forward a softer, more moderate face at their convention this week. That's no place for Tom DeLay (search), the combustible, conservative House majority leader.

DeLay is decidedly off-stage here, but not invisible.

An ardent supporter of the aerospace industry, DeLay will speak at a "Space Jam" reception at Studio 450 honoring him Tuesday night, a month after he vowed to restore $1.1 billion that House Republicans tentatively cut from NASA's budget.

Sponsors of the invitation-only reception include Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Orbital, software company AGI and the Space Foundation. Brian Chase, the foundation's vice president, said the $50,000 reception is to thank DeLay, not an effort to affect the outcome of the spending fight.

On Monday, he'll speak at a Republican Jewish coalition salute at the Plaza Hotel honoring him. None of his events, aides point out, is a fund-raiser. (The ace fund-raiser has donated at least $750,000 to GOP candidates through his political action committee this cycle.)

The 57-year-old Texan is viewed by some as the real power driving the chamber's Republicans, despite his status as No. 2. He and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search), R-Ill., DeLay's one-time protege, deny that claim.

Irrefutably, the hard-charging DeLay plays a far more public role than the low-key Hastert. He often laces debates and news conferences with tart rhetoric aimed at skewering Democrats, and while he reaches out to all of his chamber's Republicans, he is closest to the conservative wing, for whom he often serves as a spokesman.

His role this week is a sharp contrast to four years ago when DeLay, then his party's whip in the House, lined up train cars donated by Union Pacific outside Philadelphia's Fleet Center to host breakfasts, dinners and schmooze time for donors, lobbyists and GOP officeholders.

This year, DeLay is not hosting any major parties or fund-raisers and there won't be any train car for donors. They'll still have access, however, at a number of events he'll be attending surrounding the convention.

"In the past Majority Leader DeLay has used the convention as a forum for conducting, as we call them, political operations funded with large amounts of soft money," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign finance watchdog group.

"He has served as kind of host and maitre d' for his House Republican colleagues, taking care of their needs and entertainment, all funded by big special interest contributions," added Wertheimer, whose group itself gets money from big donors to Democratic causes, DeLay's aides point out.

At one time, DeLay had a far more visible role planned for this convention.

He wanted to house members of Congress, lobbyists and other VIPs on a luxury cruise ship. The idea was dropped upon objections from New York's Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, business groups and labor leaders who complained the ship would draw more than $3 million away from city businesses.

DeLay also had set up a tax-exempt nonprofit group, Celebrations For Children Inc. Some of the contributions to the children's charity were to be used to help pay for convention parties, a Madison Square Garden luxury suite, a golf outing, yacht cruises and a private dinner with DeLay.

Government watchdog groups condemned the plan. Two of them, Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, filed a complaint with the IRS demanding it yank the tax-exempt status of the charity, alleging that DeLay was using it to raise prohibited political "soft money" from corporations.

Delay also faces investigations by the House Ethics committee and federal prosecutors in Texas into fund-raising activities associated with him.

But even absent the train cars or a yacht, DeLay won't be overlooked. His mere presence may help mollify religious and social conservatives upset at not getting a bigger center stage presence.