WASHINGTON – Democrats and Republicans are using the ethics turmoil surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) to wage a rhetorical duel accusing each other of skirting tough debates on Social Security, gas prices and judges.
Hyperbole, no stranger on Capitol Hill (search), is a key weapon in a fight tightly coordinated by party leaders.
Republicans lunged first on Wednesday, accusing Democrats of exploiting questions about who paid for two of DeLay's trips abroad.
"Tom DeLay did nothing wrong," Rep. Todd Tiahrt (search), R-Kan., told reporters after the weekly GOP caucus meeting. "There's no evidence of any breaking of the House rules. What this is, is a political smear campaign made by an organization, a political party that is devoid of ideas."
Democrats parried by describing DeLay as the face of a Republican majority controlled by radical, right-wing extremists, unfairly wielding power by changing House ethics rules and threatening to abolish Senate filibusters — a hallowed tradition that allows senators to stall legislation with unlimited talk.
"Republicans are engaging in abuse of power and the American people are paying the price," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Added Rep. Steny Hoyer (search), D-Md., "The Republicans in the House of Representatives are running the most closed and bitterly partisan House in the history of our country."
DeLay has been cast as either a whipping boy or poster boy in news conferences, debates and hallway asides over who paid for some of his official trips, the Terri Schiavo case and the GOP's majority stewardship of the House and Senate.
On Wednesday, DeLay apologized for "inartful" phrasing when he said on the day Schiavo died that the judges involved would have to answer for their decisions against her parents, who wanted to reconnect her feeding tube. But he gave no ground on the ethics debate.
He told reporters that he was eager to appear before the leaders of the House ethics committee to respond to the conduct allegations.
The White House weighed in cautiously. President Bush's chief spokesman, Scott McClellan (search), said the president considers the Texas Republican a friend — but more as a business associate than a social pal.
Amid all the outrage, memories appear short. For example, when polls showed a majority of people disapproving of Congress's March 20 vote allowing federal judges to intervene in Schiavo's case, Democrats started throwing the word Schiavo into their list of grievances.
Yet no Senate Democrats filed an objection to the bill, nor did they show up for the final vote. In the House, 102 Democrats, including Pelosi, didn't show up for the vote there in the early morning hours of March 21.
On the Republican side, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee professes wonder at Democratic leader Harry Reid's threat to bring the Senate to a halt if the GOP abolishes the filibusters Democrats have used to block President Bush's judicial nominees.
The threat to shut down operations "baffles me," Frist said. It shouldn't. Frist was a member of the newly minted GOP majority that shut down the government in the 1990s during a budget standoff with President Clinton.
The near-term stakes include DeLay's future in Congress and whether a bitter standoff over judicial nominations might preclude action on tax cuts, Social Security changes and other Bush priorities.
Further afield are next year's elections, when Democrats will try to narrow the GOP's 232-202 majority in the House and its 55-44 advantage and in the Senate. Each body also has one independent.
DeLay "may actually serve us well," New York Sen. Charles Schumer, head of the Senate Democrats' 2006 election campaign, said Tuesday. "When people detect extremism in the air they tend to react the other way."
Republicans said it's Democrats who are out of touch with what matters to voters.
"I come here and it's Tom DeLay, Tom DeLay, Tom DeLay," said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla. "I go back to my district, and most people don't know who Tom DeLay is."