WASHINGTON – A Texas judge's ruling expected by next week could force Rep. Tom DeLay to stand trial on conspiracy and money laundering charges, as well as decide the future of U.S. House Republican leadership and further shake the GOP hit hard by recent scandal.
DeLay has said since the September indictment that required him to step down as House majority leader that he is victim of a political vendetta. He has pushed for a resolution of the case before January, when Congress reconvenes, so he can quickly return to his leadership post.
Senior Judge Pat Priest is expected to rule on a motion to throw out the indictment by Tuesday.
"I see this as a do-or-die moment for Tom DeLay's future as majority leader," said David Cannon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin.
If the charges are dismissed, DeLay will be back as majority leader as soon as he can get word to Republican leaders. If not, he's looking at a trial that isn't likely to begin before January.
He still has a chance of returning, as long as his colleagues are patient. At any time though, his colleagues could decide to hold new elections, as long as 50 House Republicans support a motion and it wins approval from a majority of their GOP colleagues. There are 230 Republicans in the House.
Congress will adjourn in mid-December, then reconvene Jan. 18 for President Bush's State of the Union address. But members probably will recess again and not begin work until Feb. 1.
"If we have a quick time line, there is a certain segment of Congress willing to be patient," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt has filled in as majority leader. But because Blunt is largely a caretaker and may not be around by summer, his power is dramatically diminished, Canon said.
"While you can have that for a few months, you can't have that for another year. It would create an unstable situation for the party and the president. He needs leadership to shepherd his legislation through Congress too."
A ruling in DeLay's favor would certainly be a bright spot for Republicans, who have had a heavy load of bad news from slumping approval ratings for Bush, congressional scandals, the Iraq war and the CIA leak case.
The latest bad news came Monday, when eight-term Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham resigned after admitting he accepted $2.4 million in bribes for defense contracts.
Also causing much concern among party members is the federal investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is alleged to have defrauded several Indian tribes of millions of dollars. Abramoff's partner Michael Scanlon, a former aide to DeLay, pleaded guilty last week to conspiring to bribe officials. He is now a government witness.
DeLay was closely associated with Abramoff, once calling him "one of my closest and dearest friends." He took a trip to Scotland and some of his expenses ended up on Abramoff's charge card, used Abramoff's skybox for political events, and his wife worked for a lobby firm that received client referrals from Abramoff. Investigators are also looking at congressional staffers who may have accepted gifts from Abramoff.
DeLay and his wife have not been charged with any wrongdoing in the case.