WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom DeLay (search) fired back at Democrats raising ethics questions about him, telling a crowd of conservative activists that the GOP's opponents have no ideas and "no class."
The House majority leader's supporters — among them a dozen conservative organizations — staged a high-profile show of support by throwing a $250-a-plate gala in his honor Thursday night that brought roughly 900 people to the Capital Hilton.
When the Texas Republican took the stage after other speakers had hailed him for his leadership in the Republican Party and the House, he made only a passing reference to the problems that have sparked calls for an ethics probe, joking that one speaker's anecdote had tipped reporters off to another foreign trip he took.
Instead, DeLay told the crowd that as Republicans helped Americans find jobs and helped the country recover from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Democrats offered the country nothing.
"No ideas. No leadership. No agenda. And, just in the last week, we can now add to that list, no class," DeLay said in a reference to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's remark to school children that President Bush was "a loser." Reid later apologized to Bush adviser Karl Rove (search).
The ethics questions DeLay faces from Democrats and other critics stem in part from foreign travel arranged by Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist accused of defrauding clients of millions of dollars.
DeLay has asked the House ethics committee to review his travel records. He has portrayed the ethics questions raised about him as a Democratic-organized smear campaign, a message that went over well with conservative activists at the gala.
"I think the message tonight is, if they pick a fight with Tom DeLay, they pick a fight with all of us," Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (search) said.
The crowd dined on filet mignon and salmon and a dessert of red-white-and-blue frosted cake decorated with candy hammers, a reference to the nickname DeLay earned when he was House majority whip.
Several protesters shouted outside the hotel, some holding signs reading "Congress can't police itself" and "Congress — owned and operated by Tom DeLay."
Rep. Tom Feeney (search), R-Fla., while defending DeLay, said he thinks tighter ethics rules are inevitable. He supports a proposal to make lawmakers and congressional aides get their trips vetted by the ethics panel before they travel.
"We need going forward to have rules that are less gray and ambiguous and more black and white," Feeney said.
Several other congressional Republicans also attended the gala, including House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were not invited, but Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman (search) was there and sat at the head table with DeLay.