WASHINGTON – Embattled Rep. Tom DeLay on Saturday abandoned his bid to remain as House majority leader, clearing the way for leadership elections among Republicans eager to shed the taint of scandal.
In a letter to rank-and-file Republicans, DeLay said, "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."
At the same time, "I cannot allow our adversaries to divide and distract our attention," the Texas Republican wrote.
DeLay is battling campaign finance charges in Texas and was forced to step aside temporarily as majority leader last fall after he was charged in his home state. He has been trying to clear his name and, until Saturday, resume his leadership role.
In a separate letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert, DeLay said he intends to seek re-election to his House seat in November "while I work to clear my name of the baseless charges leveled against me." Urging a new leadership election as soon as possible, DeLay said the majority leader's job and "the mandate of the Republican majority are too important to be hamstrung, even for a few months, by personal distractions."
DeLay's about-face came amid growing pressure from fellow Republicans who were concerned about their own political futures in the wake of this past week's guilty pleas by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
DeLay's defiant, take-no-prisoners style had won him the admiration and respect of fellow Republicans, but his mounting problems cast a shadow over the entire House.
After repeatedly maintaining that President Bush continued to support DeLay, the White House pivoted abruptly on Saturday, issuing a statement that endorsed DeLay's move. "We respect Congressman DeLay's decision to put the interests of the American people, the House of Representatives and the Republican Party first," said Erin Healy, a spokeswoman for Bush.
The House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, contended DeLay had engineered a "culture of corruption" among majority Republicans "that a single person stepping down is not nearly enough to clean up the Republican Congress."
Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, the GOP whip who temporarily has filled in for DeLay, was expected to run for majority leader. Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, a former member of the leadership, is also likely to seek the job.
Elections are likely the week of Jan. 30, when lawmakers return to the Capitol.
DeLay acted hours after a small vanguard of Republicans circulated a petition calling for leadership elections and citing DeLay's legal problems as well as his long ties to Abramoff.
Republican rules permit an election to fill the vacancy, and aides to Reps. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Charles Bass of New Hampshire said on Friday that the lawmakers' petition would allow the rank and file to pick new leadership quickly.
"The developments with Abramoff have "brought home the fact that we need not just new leaders but a course correction," Flake said.
Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, a perennial election-year target of Democrats, said she did not want DeLay to return as majority leader.
And GOP Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota said, "It's clear that we need to elect a new majority leader to restore the trust and confidence of the American people."
Until Saturday, there had been no public indication that DeLay, whose fierce devotion to conservative causes has helped nurture the Republican majority, was willing to abandon his quest to take back the majority leader's job.
But Hastert, his longtime friend, signaled he would not try to block the rank and file from acting.
His spokesman, Ron Bonjean, said the petition drive "is consistent with the speaker's announcement ... that House Republicans would revisit this matter at the beginning of this year."
Hastert's hold on power appears secure. Several officials said he has been involved in discussions in recent days on ethics overhaul measures to be announced next week, part of a broader GOP attempt to minimize any election-year taint of scandal.
The maneuvering to succeed DeLay occurred near the end of a week in which Abramoff, the central figure in a growing public corruption investigation and a man with close ties to Republicans, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and several other charges in two federal courtrooms.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that 49 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer to see Democrats in control of Congress, and 36 percent said Republicans.
Hastert and other Republicans had accepted the arrangement by which DeLay temporarily stepped aside last year, and DeLay maneuvered to win the dismissal of charges or gain an acquittal by early February.
But Abramoff's guilty pleas appear to have changed the political environment for Republicans 11 months before the midterm elections.
"The situation is that Tom's legal situation doesn't seem to be reaching clarity," Rep. John Kline of Minnesota said in an interview.
DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said Friday that his boss "appreciates that a majority of his colleagues recognizes that he remains committed to fulfilling his responsibilities as majority leader and that he'll be quickly exonerated in Texas."