WASHINGTON – Leaders of about a dozen conservative groups planned a gala on Thursday honoring House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) and they pledged to open the doors to every major news organization in town. DeLay was to be the final speaker.
Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union, said the event's participants have looked at the issues surrounding DeLay — which include ethics questions, declining poll numbers and a possible congressional investigation — and "don't think any of them rise to any level of gravity whatsoever."
"This is a political campaign by his enemies. Well, we're his friends," Lessner said. "And when your friend is under attack you come to his aid and you stand with him, and that's what we mean to do."
The $250-per-plate event at the Capital Hilton has sold out. About 900 people were expected. The proceeds will be used to pay for the dinner, organizers said.
About three-dozen House and Senate Republicans planned to attend, including DeLay's deputy, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (search) of Missouri. President Bush and Vice President Cheney were not invited, but appearances by officials from the Republican National Committee were expected, Lessner said.
"This is not a White House deal," Lessner said. "This is the conservative movement showing support for Tom DeLay. This isn't establishment."
The ethics questions DeLay faces from Democrats and other critics stem in part from foreign trips he took that were arranged by Jack Abramoff (search), a lobbyist accused of defrauding tribal clients of millions of dollars. Abramoff is facing a federal grand jury investigation and an inquiry by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
DeLay has portrayed the ethics questions raised about him as an attempt by liberals to smear him. He also has the House ethics committee to review his travel records.
A poll released last month by the Houston Chronicle found support for DeLay has dropped dramatically in his district.
DeLay was not the only event participant affected by the Abramoff investigations.
Americans for Tax Reform, a group run by gala organizer and DeLay and Abramoff political associate Grover Norquist, has been subpoenaed by the Senate committee.
Other conservative leaders who planned to attend the dinner include Charlie Black, a Republican consultant with close ties to the White House; former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, head of American Values; Ed Fuelner of the Heritage Foundation; Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation; Morton Blackwell of the Leadership Institute; and the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition.