WASHINGTON – Private GOP tensions over Tom DeLay's (search) ethics controversy spilled into public Sunday, as a Senate leader called on DeLay to explain his actions and one House Republican demanded the majority leader's resignation.
"Tom's conduct is hurting the Republican Party, is hurting this Republican majority and it is hurting any Republican who is up for re-election," Rep. Chris Shays (search), R-Conn., told The Associated Press in an interview, calling for DeLay to step down as majority leader.
DeLay, R-Texas, who was admonished by the House ethics committee last year, has been dogged in recent months by new reports about his overseas travel funded by special interests, campaign payments to family members and connections to a lobbyist who is under criminal investigation.
A moderate Republican from Connecticut who has battled with his party's leadership on a number of issues, Shays said efforts by the House GOP members to change ethics rules to protect DeLay only make the party look bad.
"My party is going to have to decide whether we are going to continue to make excuses for Tom to the detriment of Republicans seeking election," Shays said.
Rick Santorum (search), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, said Sunday that DeLay needs to explain his conduct to the public.
"I think he has to come forward and lay out what he did and why he did it and let the people then judge for themselves," Santorum told ABC's "This Week." "But from everything I've heard, again, from the comments and responding to those, is everything he's done was according to the law.
"Now you may not like some of the things he's done," said Santorum, who is up for re-election next year in Pennsylvania. "That's for the people of his district to decide, whether they want to approve that kind of behavior or not."
DeLay's spokesman, Dan Allen, told AP that the congressman "looks forward to the opportunity of sitting down with the ethics committee chairman and ranking member to get the facts out and to dispel the fiction and innuendo that's being launched at him by House Democrats and their liberal allies."
Responding specifically to Shays' remarks later, Allen added that DeLay's "effective leadership has helped to build and maintain the Republican majority in the House and that's exactly why liberal groups funded by George Soros have set their sights on him."
The majority leader was admonished three times last year by that committee. The committee has been in limbo since March, when its five Democrats balked at adopting Republican-developed rules.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week that the controversy was distracting DeLay from dealing with more pressing problems before Congress.
Santorum, however, said DeLay is "very effective in leading the House" and "to date, has not been compromised."
A senior Democratic senator, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, had this advice for the Republicans who control both the House and Senate: "Be careful about how closely you embrace Mr. DeLay."
Dodd cited the new rules for the ethics committee that House Republicans rammed through in the wake of DeLay's difficulties. Those rules require a bipartisan vote before an investigation can be launched. DeLay's office also helped mount a counterattack last fall against Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who was the ethics committee chairman when it came down against DeLay.
"Unfortunately, in his particular case, there's a process that he's tried to change so they could actually reach a determination as to whether or not he's innocent or guilty of the things he's been charged with," Dodd said. "But this is not going to go away."
DeLay "becomes the poster child for a lot of the things the Democrats think are wrong about Republican leadership. As long as he's there, he's going to become a pretty good target," Dodd said on ABC.
DeLay, who took center stage in passing legislation designed to keep alive Terri Schiavo, also has found that President Bush and congressional colleagues are distancing themselves from his comments, after her death, about the judges involved in her case.
"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior," DeLay said, raising the prospect of impeaching members of a separate and independent branch of government. Later, he complained of "an arrogant and out of control judiciary that thumbs its nose at Congress and the president."
Bush, declining to endorse DeLay's comments, said Friday that he supports "an independent judiciary." He added, "I believe in proper checks and balances."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said last week that the judges "handled it in a fair and independent way," although he had hoped for a different result.
Democrats have said DeLay's remarks were tantamount to inciting violence against judges.