WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom DeLay returned to Washington on Tuesday after winning a legal victory in a Texas courtroom, but still faces obstacles to reclaiming his former House leadership position.
One legal victory for DeLay came on Monday when District Judge Pat Priest threw out a conspiracy charge against the Texas Republican and two of his associates. A money-laundering charge and a conspiracy to commit money-laundering charge is now expected to go to a jury trial.
DeLay was required to step aside as House majority leader in September after he was indicted on charges brought by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Earle has 15 days to appeal the judge's ruling on throwing out the conspiracy charge. The money laundering charges are the more serious of the allegations filed against DeLay, but they are also harder to prove.
DeLay denies wrongdoing and vows to return to his post as House majority leader, the position he held from 2003 until the indictment forced him out under House rules. Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt took the role of acting majority leader.
With DeLay preoccupied by his legal woes, House Republicans could choose to hold a leadership election, some suggest as early as January, if 50 of the 229-member caucus decide DeLay should be removed permanently because he can't fulfill the duties of his post. Congress will be back for President Bush's 2006 State of the Union Address in late January, and will likely reconvene in early February.
As of now, however, no elections are scheduled, though Blunt told reporters he would not oppose them if they were called. He added that he doesn't believe it will come to that.
"I believe Mr. DeLay's situation will be resolved by then and I believe it will be resolved to his satisfaction," he said.
DeLay supporters say the trial will come soon and the former House majority leader will be cleared of all charges, allowing him to reclaim his powerful job.
“We believe he will be totally exonerated and return to his majority leader post,” Kevin Madden, a spokesman for DeLay, told FOXNews.com.
Madden said a trial is expected by January, which will take about a week. Priest said at the Nov. 22 hearing that a trial may not come before the New Year.
DeLay's attorney Dick DeGuerin said that even if Earle appeals the judge's ruling, they want the case to move forward as quickly as possible. DeGuerin said he plans to ask Priest to consider additional motions to dismiss the case and if that doesn't work, he wants a trial to get started in the first or second week of January.
"Whether [Earle] appeals or not, we're going to ask the judge to go forward," DeGuerin told FOX News’ Tony Snow.
DeGuerin said DeLay’s absence as House majority leader encourages other lawmakers to try to take over the position.
“Without Tom DeLay’s strong leadership there, there’s others that are going to come in,” DeGuerin said. “If there’s a real chance, and I think there is, that we can be out of this completely before February, then I think they are all going to be sitting back and waiting,” he said.
But some experts say DeLay's legal troubles will hurt his plan to reclaim his majority leader post.
"Whether he’s exonerated or not, that’s still going to be a problem for him," Richard Semiatin, an assistant professor of political science at American University, told FOXNews.com.
Semiatin added that if House Republicans don't force a caucus vote, DeLay is likely to remain in his leadership position for as long as he can rather than voluntarily resigning.
“He would have to be forced into doing it. That’s just not in his DNA to quit or to resign,” Semiatin said.
Madden said DeLay’s staff has assured constituents and fellow Republicans that the legal proceedings are moving fast and he is likely to be exonerated.
If he is convicted or for any reason resigns, some Republicans may challenge Blunt to the position, a scenario that could create a power struggle within the party, Semiatin said.
“These things are done very secretly and quietly,” he said of the behind-the-scenes orchestrations now being considered.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, also among the House leadership, notified fellow Republicans he intends to remain as chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee through the 2006 elections. Reynolds said there had been "far too many rumors regarding ... potential leadership elections," and said the speculation "diverts the energy necessary to both implement our important legislative agenda and prepare for the crucial 2006 elections."
Some rank-and-file Republicans have suggested that DeLay's case could hurt the party as it battles recent setbacks ahead of the midterm election in 2006. Semiatin said even if DeLay is cleared, he won’t achieve the same place in the power ladder of Congress.
“He won’t be as powerful as he once was,” Semiatin said. “He will have been tainted by scandal.”
Texas Republicans Pledge Support
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 713 registered voters in DeLay's Houston-area district show that support is wavering.
In 2004, DeLay won 55 percent of the popular vote while Democratic challenger Richard Morrison won 41 percent. The Dec. 1-4 survey released after Monday's ruling found 49 percent now say they would be more likely to vote for a Democratic challenger in 2006 while 36 percent would vote for DeLay. The telephone poll in the 22nd Congressional District had a sampling error of 4 percent.
But Republicans in DeLay’s Texas district still strongly support the congressman, said Eric Thode, chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican Party.
“I’ve seen no slippage among the Republican rank-and-file,” Thode said. “They are certainly standing behind him.”
Thode said fellow constituents view DeLay’s legal troubles as a “political partisan witch hunt” by Earle.
Earle alleges that in 2002 DeLay illegally funneled $190,000 in restricted corporate funds from his Texas political action committee to the Republican National Committee. The money was then sent to candidates for the Texas state legislature.
Texas law doesn’t allow the direct use of corporate money for political use, but it does permit funds used for administrative purposes.
DeGuerin argued in court last month that one of the charges — conspiracy to violate the Texas election code — did not even take effect until September 2003, a year after the alleged offenses occurred. Priest agreed and dismissed that charge.
But Priest did not agree with DeGuerin's argument that a check allegedly sent to the Republican National Committee by DeLay's political action committee for Texas state candidates was not actual "funds" and therefore did not constitute money laundering.
"If the state can prove that funds were obtained from corporate contributors by these defendants with the express intent of converting those funds to the use of individual candidates, or if the state can prove that these defendants entered into an agreement to convert the monies already on hand, though originally received for lawful purposes ... then they will have established that money was laundered," Priest wrote.
"The money would have become 'dirty money' at the point that it began to be held with the prohibited intent. Of course, if the state cannot establish that beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendants will be entitled to be acquitted," Priest added.
However, Earle may not have a key piece of evidence to make the money laundering charges stick. In pre-trial hearings for co-defendants Jim Ellis and John Colyandro, defense attorneys pressed prosecutors to produce a list mentioned in the indictments, a list that spelled out the names of the Texas candidates who received what Earle claims were illegal campaign contributions. Assistant District Attorney Rick Reed admitted in open court he had "a" document but it wasn't "the" document.
"We are not in a position to, to represent that this is a copy of the same document," Reed said. Later Earle maintained the document in his possession is "factually-related" to the document mentioned in the indictments.
Supporters Shell Out Donations for DeLay
Republicans have pledged support through fundraisers and public statements on behalf of the indicted congressman.
Vice President Dick Cheney hosted a fundraiser for DeLay in Houston at the Westin Oaks Hotel Monday night, an event attended by more than 300 people who paid at least $500 each to attend, Madden said.
“The atmosphere was one of enthusiasm,” said Jared Woodfill, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, and a participant at the fundraiser. “I think it shows that people believe in the agenda that Mr. DeLay has led for the past 20 years.”
Constituents in Harris County, which is part of DeLay’s congressional district, support him, Woodfill said.
“We continue to get calls of support for the congressman,” Woodfill told FOXNews.com. “He’s under attack because he’s an effective leader.”
Republicans say they have a lot to thank DeLay for after a congressional redistricting plan pushed by DeLay boosted the GOP party in Texas. Republicans took control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years and then more Republicans won House seats, sending a larger GOP Texas delegation to Congress.
FOX News' Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.