WASHINGTON – The race is under way to replace Rep. Tom DeLay as House majority leader, the No. 2 position in the House of Representatives, one day after the Texas Republican announced he would step down to turn attention away from his legal troubles and back toward the Republican agenda.
Speaking to FOX News on Sunday in his first television interview since announcing his decision, DeLay said he was being railroaded by a "runaway district attorney" motivated purely by partisan politics.
"Republicans, not the Democrats, have a rule that says if you're indicted you have to step aside from your leadership position. ... A grand jury has indicted me and the only reason to indict me was to get me to step aside," DeLay said.
"The only reason that I am indicted right now is because of the Republican rule. It's working for [Democrats], but in the end they're going to lose," DeLay said, adding that the pursuit against him is purely "to hide the fact that these Democrats don't have an agenda."
DeLay stepped down as leader on Saturday, saying he is confident that he would be exonerated from conspiracy charges in his home state, but the job of majority leader is too important to be hamstrung by distractions.
"During my time in Congress, I have always acted in an ethical manner within the rules of our body and the laws of our land. I am fully confident time will bear this out," DeLay wrote in a letter to his caucus.
At the same time, "I cannot allow our adversaries to divide and distract our attention," the Texas Republican wrote.
The election for majority leader could take place as early as the end of the month — in the week of Jan. 30, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said.
While Hastert's position is safe, a small group of rank-and-file Republicans had circulated a petition calling for a new leadership election and citing DeLay's legal problems. At least two candidates are seeking the vacant position, including Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the majority whip, acting majority leader and No. 3 Republican in the House before DeLay's resignation as leader.
"Tom DeLay put it best when he reminded us that as a unified team, our Republican Conference is unstoppable. I am writing to you today to request your support for my candidacy for House majority leader," Blunt wrote in a letter sent Sunday to his Republican House colleagues.
"Unfortunately, the recent scandals have caused some to question whether we have lost our vision and whether the faith they have placed in us is justified. While I have no doubt that it is, it will be difficult to move forward with our platform until we regain the trust and confidence of our constituents by enacting new lobbying reforms and enhanced penalties for those who break the public trust," he wrote.
Also running is Ohio Rep. John Boehner, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and a former Republican Party leader.
Boehner's first two terms in the House were marked by a campaign to clean up Congress and he helped expose the House banking scandal, postal stamp trades for cash and lawmakers' dine-and-dash practices at the House Restaurant.
Sources told FOX News that Boehner telephoned DeLay on Saturday and received a commitment from DeLay that he would remain neutral in the majority leader's race. In announcing his bid, Boehner told FOX News that he respects DeLay, who was nicknamed "the Hammer" for the manner in which he convinced caucus members to stand united, but he has a different approach to leadership.
"My theory is you can catch more bees with honey then you do with vinegar and all of my kids would tell you that, all my staff would tell you that. There is no question, Tom DeLay has been one of the greatest leaders the Republican Party has ever had," Boehner said.
Another name mentioned as a possible candidate is Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Lewis hasn't made any announcements yet about his intentions, but sources told FOX News that he's actively soliciting support for the race and gauging his prospects.
Asked whom he would support in the vote, DeLay demurred. "I don't think I should be involved in this leadership race. I have a secret ballot and I am going to vote that secret ballot," he said.
The latest shake-up follows lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea on charges relating to pocketing excessive fees from his clients that he charged for access to Congress. In the plea deal, Abramoff agreed to take a lesser penalty in exchange for helping the Department of Justice in a congressional influence-peddling probe. The probe could focus on as many as two-dozen lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate alike.
DeLay called Abramoff a good friend and said he had not acted toward Abramoff in any way differently than he had with other lobbyists. None of that, he said, remotely resembles influence peddling or other illegal behavior.
DeLay said in every action he has taken, he has been cleared by the ethics committee or lawyers.
"There is nothing there and everybody knows that," he said adding that transparency is critical in campaign finance, but the legal system makes sure that lawmakers can be held to account. "They abused the system, they have been caught and they pled guilty. Obviously the system is working," he said.
In response to news of the Abramoff scandal, Hastert said he is calling for reform within his party.
"I intend to move forward aggressively and quickly to have the House of Representatives address lobbying reform. ... I have asked House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier to head this effort so that we can have important reforms ready as soon as possible. He will be reaching out to all the members of the House seeking their ideas for reform," Hastert said in a statement Sunday.
Dreier too said "recent developments have made clear the need for the House to take a closer look at the rules regarding members' interactions with lobbyists." Dreier said he will conduct a bipartisan examination over the next month, speaking in particular to those who have already introduced proposals about their ideas.
"It's my sincere hope that all members who care as deeply as the speaker does about the integrity of the House will engage in this discussion without partisan or political considerations," he said.
Dreier told FOX News that he was returning to Washington on Sunday evening so he could begin "to deal with this issue and get it behind us as quickly as possible," not only because Democrats want to politicize it, but because several proposals are already on the table to create greater accountability and transparency and he wants to address them immediately.
He added that he appreciated DeLay's decision. "Tom DeLay has been a superb leader ... and I think he made what was for us and him the right decision," Dreier said.
DeLay's announcement set off congressional Democrats, who blasted Republicans by claiming they are involved in a "culture of corruption," and said DeLay's stepping down is not enough to change that culture in the Republican-led Congress.
"I think there is an arrogance of power." Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told FOX News. "One thing I have learned, I think, from the perspective of the American people, it is very dangerous to have one party control all, the three branches, meaning the House, the Senate and the White House."
"[Democrats] are looking at the extraordinary explosion of the problems of corruption in the legislative branch ... this culture of corruption that is the greatest I have (seen) since the Watergate period," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
"The problem is really more basic than whether Tom DeLay stayed in his post or left his post ... Whether we have one DeLay protége or another isn't going to solve the problem," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who added that checks and balances need to be restored and the systemic problem, which starts and ends with the Republican majority, needs to be changed.
"The GOP agenda right now is the perpetuation of the GOP. That's not how they rolled into town in 1994 ... I think the people who are in the middle of this mess ... are not the ones to clean it up," Schiff said.
But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said DeLay's decision to step down will help the GOP to concentrate on its priorities and enable the party to draw on the talents of many other members in the caucus.
"It's a good opportunity to start the new session with a leadership team who has the American people in their hearts and minds. ... I think Speaker Hastert has taken the corrective role in making sure we get input in a bipartisan manner," Ros-Lehtinen said.
She added that Democratic hopes that DeLay's troubles would help them won't come to pass because the time between now and the November mid-term election is "a lifetime in politics."
"I know for many Democrats today is a sad day ... because they put all their hopes on making sure they could drag [DeLay] through the mud for a few more months," she said.
Meanwhile, DeLay said while he is abandoning his goal of returning to his position as House majority leader, he hopes to continue serving in Congress. Several candidates from both sides of the political aisle have suggested they plan to challenge DeLay.
"I am still a candidate for re-election this November, and I plan to run a very vigorous campaign, and I plan to win it," DeLay said.
FOX News' Kelly Wright contributed to this report.