WASHINGTON – Supporters of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) proposed a Republican rules change Tuesday that would protect the Texan's leadership position if he were to be indicted by a Texas grand jury that already charged three of his associates.
House Republicans are likely to approve Wednesday the change in the rule that would force him to step aside if indicted. The show of support would be an endorsement of DeLay's position that the Travis County investigation is a partisan attack.
Currently, rules of the House Republican Conference, which comprises all House GOP members, requires leaders to resign the party post if they are indicted for a felony punishable by two or more years in jail. The proposed change would eliminate the step-aside requirement for nonfederal indictments.
The Texas grand jury is investigating alleged campaign finance irregularities in 2002 state legislative races. Republican victories in those contests enabled DeLay ultimately to win support for a congressional redistricting (search) plan that resulted in the GOP's gain of five seats in this month's elections.
House Democrats have a step-aside provision that applies to chairmen or ranking members of committees who are charged with felonies. The language is silent on top party leaders, but Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (search) of California was nonetheless sharply critical of the proposal to protect DeLay.
"If they make this rules change, Republicans will confirm yet again that they simply do not care if their leaders are ethical. If Republicans believe that an indicted member should be allowed to hold a top leadership position in the House of Representatives, their arrogance is astonishing," Pelosi said.
The language was proposed by Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, who was helped by the redistricting. Bonilla was re-elected in 2002 with less than 52 percent of the vote. After the boundaries were changed, he won this month with 69 percent of the vote.
Jessica Boulanger, spokeswoman for third-ranking House Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri, confirmed the proposal and said Blunt supported it.
The majority whip "believes the allegations are baseless, and they were political in nature. So he supports the proposed rules change by congressman Bonilla."
Bonilla spokeswoman Taryn Fritz Walpole said the proposed change is intended to "prevent political manipulation of the legislative process" and reduce the possibility of "political exploitation and intimidation of House leadership and chairmanship positions."
The Texas investigation is led by a Democrat, retiring Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle.
In September, the grand jury indicted three political operatives associated with DeLay and eight companies, alleging campaign finance violations related to corporate money spent in the 2002 legislative races. The corporate donations were made to Texans for a Republican Majority (search), a political action committee created with help from DeLay.
DeLay said he was not questioned or subpoenaed as part of the investigation.
The majority leader said after the indictments, "This has been a dragged-out 500-day investigation, and you do the political math. This is no different than other kinds of partisan attacks that have been leveled against me that are dropped after elections."
In October, the House ethics committee rebuked DeLay for appearing to link political donations to a legislative favor and improperly persuading U.S. aviation authorities to intervene in the Texas redistricting dispute.