GALVESTON, Texas – President Bush praised House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) on Tuesday and gave him an Air Force One ride back to Washington as the administration worked to cool grumbling about the embattled Texas congressman.
The White House denied that DeLay's appearance with Bush at a Social Security (search) event here was a way for the president to give the House leader a political boost. But while the president has steadfastly backed DeLay, Tuesday's appearance took Bush's public show of support to a new level.
"I appreciate the leadership of Congressman Tom DeLay in working on important issues that matter to the country," Bush said before he began plugging for Social Security overhaul.
DeLay, an influential conservative on Capitol Hill, is facing questions about money used to pay for some of his foreign trips, about political fundraising for Texas elections and about his ties to a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff (search), who is under federal criminal investigation.
DeLay, who rode with the president in his limousine, on his Marine One helicopter and then on Air Force One (search) for the return flight to Washington, has said he's willing to defend himself before the House ethics committee, but the panel is essentially shut down because of a deadlock over new rules imposed by Republicans.
Upon landing, and after a goodbye handshake at the bottom of the Air Force One steps, DeLay said the president's very public show of support for him Tuesday "felt very good."
"The president was very gracious," he said. "We feel very humbled by that kind of support."
DeLay said he did not know that tickets for at least one overseas flight were apparently charged to Abramoff's credit card — which would be a violation of ethics rules — saying, "I've always believed" it was paid for properly by a nonprofit group. "I didn't know that that went on," he said.
The Democratic National Committee asked why DeLay was being rewarded with a ride on the presidential jet.
"Jack Abramoff can't cut deals for first class seats on Air Force One," said DNC communications director Karen Finney. "This time the taxpayers are stuck paying the bill. It's time for George Bush to stop giving Tom DeLay a free ride."
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said DeLay was invited to the event because his district is near Galveston, although it doesn't touch it. Bush is supporting DeLay as "strongly as he ever has, which is strongly," McClellan said.
Bush, at the beginning of his remarks on Social Security, said he had talked privately backstage with DeLay, "who kindly joined us today."
DeLay's presence was not lost on area residents, for and against. One woman, standing along the motorcade route, waved a red sign that said: "Save America without DeLay." On the street outside the event, Bush supporters waving "Save Social Security" signs had a standoff with detractors who held signs denouncing the private retirement accounts that Bush desires and holding signs that said: "Dump DeLay" and "Tom DeLay Unethical."
Inside, before the president walked onstage, the audience engaged in a mini pep rally for DeLay, who has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. A woman in the audience shouted "We love you, Tom."
His supporters applauded and DeLay, sitting in the fourth row, stood up, smiled broadly and waved. That earned him a noisy standing ovation and a second shout of support. "Keep up the good work," a woman yelled.
McClellan was asked whether the accusations against DeLay gave "pause to the president." He replied: "No. Look, those will be issues that leader DeLay has said he's more than happy to address before the ethics committee and those matters will be addressed by congressional leaders and Congressman DeLay."