WASHINGTON – Portraying ethics questions faced by Tom DeLay (search) as a liberal plot, the majority leader's conservative supporters staged a high-profile show of support Thursday night by throwing a gala in his honor.
About 900 people had tickets to the $250-per-plate dinner at the Capital Hilton (search), organized by about a dozen conservative groups. The money will be used to pay for the event, organizers said.
The crowd dined on filet mignon and salmon as several protesters shouted outside, some holding signs reading "Congress can't police itself" and "Congress—owned and operated by Tom DeLay."
Rep. Tom Feeney (search) of Florida, 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," Fenney said.
Several conservative leaders were scheduled to make comments about DeLay, who was speaking at the end of the dinner.
Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union, said he and other event participants believe the questions raised about DeLay amount to nothing more than "a political campaign by his enemies."
"The dinner's a sellout and it's already accomplished what it needs to accomplish: that we publicly embrace Tom DeLay and stand with him against these baseless allegations," Lessner said.
About three dozen congressional Republicans planned to attend, including House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri. President Bush and Vice President Cheney were not invited, but Republican National Committee officials including Chairman Ken Mehlman were expected at the dinner, Lessner said.
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 tribal 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 Democrat-organized smear campaign.
A poll released last month by the Houston Chronicle found support for DeLay has dropped dramatically in his district.
Abramoff is under investigation by a federal grand jury and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. 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.