WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) apologized Wednesday for using overheated rhetoric on the day Terri Schiavo died, but refused to say whether he supports impeachment of the judges who ruled in her case.
DeLay backtracked as White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush considers the Texas Republican, who is battling ethics allegations, a friend, but suggested that the majority leader is more of a business associate than a social pal.
"I think there are different levels of friendship with anybody," McClellan said.
At a crowded news conference in his Capitol office, DeLay addressed remarks he made in the hours after the brain-damaged Florida woman died on March 31. "I said something in an inartful way and I shouldn't have said it that way and I apologize for saying it that way," DeLay told reporters.
Shortly after Schiavo's death, Delay said it represented a failure of the legal system. DeLay's statement also said, "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
DeLay said at the news conference that he was eager to appear before the leaders of the House ethics committee and give "everything I have" in connection with allegations of misconduct.
That committee, meanwhile, has deadlocked on a Democratic demand for changes in the rules that Republicans pushed through the House this winter.
The committee's leaders, Reps. Doc Hastings (search), R-Wash., and Alan Mollohan (search), D-W.Va., said they had no plans to grant DeLay's request to appear before them until the committee sorts out its organizational difficulties.
DeLay seemed at pains to soften, if slightly, his rhetoric of March 31, when Schiavo died despite an extraordinary political and legal effort to save her life.
"I believe in an independent judiciary. I repeat, of course I believe in an independent judiciary," DeLay said.
At the same time, he added, the Constitution gives Congress power to oversee the courts.
"We set up the courts. We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse," DeLay said.
Asked whether he favors impeachment for any of the judges in the Schiavo case, he did not answer directly.
Instead, he referred reporters to an earlier request he made to the House Judiciary Committee to look into "judicial activism" and Schiavo's case in particular.
Congress enacted unusual legislation in the days before Schiavo's death in hopes of lending legal support to Schiavo's parents, who were seeking a federal court order to have their daughter's feeding tube reconnected. They were turned down at every level, including the U.S. Supreme Court, despite the measure that Bush signed quickly after it passed.
The scrutiny of his remarks came at a politically inopportune time for DeLay, compounding the controversy caused by allegations that three of his overseas trips were illegally financed.
Last week, Bush put some distance between himself and DeLay after the majority leader suggested judges should be penalized for their decisions in the Schiavo case. Bush said he believed in an independent judiciary.
Bush and DeLay have had a prickly relationship going back to Bush's assertion in 1999 that House Republicans were trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. When Bush pushed the House to pass a a tax benefit for low-income families with children in 2003, DeLay told reporters, "Last time I checked, he didn't have a vote," referring to the president.
McClellan was questioned about his statement on Monday that Bush considers DeLay a friend, in view of a scarcity of evidence of social ties between them.
"There are a number of congressional leaders that he (Bush) works closely with on the Hill and he considers a friend," McClellan said. "I think there are different levels of friendship with anybody."
McClellan said the question posed to him Wednesday referred to social friends. "But no, he certainly is a friend. ... The president considers him such. And we support his efforts, along with the efforts of other congressional leaders to move forward on the agenda that the American people want us to enact."
Democrats have seized on the ethics allegations. One House Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays (search) of Connecticut, has called for DeLay to step down.
DeLay told reporters the controversy has not slowed Congress' work at all. He also served notice he no longer intends to answer questions about his personal case at his weekly news conferences.
He said he would continue to hold news conferences, "but only if everyone is here for the intended purpose" of asking about the Republican legislative agenda.