GOP Changes Felony Probe Rule for DeLay

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Whether it's flying to small towns to help Republicans raise money or engineering a redistricting plan giving his party control of the Texas congressional delegation, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) delivers for his members.

Now the members have delivered for him.

House Republicans on Wednesday changed a party rule so DeLay, R-Texas, could remain as leader if indicted in a Texas campaign finance investigation that he calls political.

The old rule required GOP leaders and committee chairmen charged with a felony to relinquish their positions. The new language orders a case-by-case review, with the leaders retaining their posts until all House Republicans decide their fate.

Along with legal arguments for protecting those who might be charged but not convicted, there clearly was another message for DeLay: "thank you."

The backing for DeLay "took on a life of its own; it was like a tsunami," Rep. Ray Lahood (search), R-Ill., said in comparing Republican support to a large sea wave.

Lahood, elected with the 1994 Republican class that captured control of the House, opposed the change but understood the outpouring of support.

"It was the result of the fact that he increased our numbers, he takes care of members when they need legislation passed, his fund raising and, in Texas, his drawing people a good district," LaHood said.

There is no indication DeLay will be indicted by an Austin grand jury in a probe led by a Democratic prosecutor, Ronnie Earle (search). In September, however, grand jurors indicted three DeLay associates and eight corporations in an investigation of allegedly illegal corporate contributions to a political action committee associated with DeLay.

DeLay is known as "the hammer." He hammers liberals. He hammers Democrats. He hammers out majorities for legislation. In September, the House ethics committee concluded he overdid his efforts of persuasion — offering to support the House candidacy of a lawmaker's son in return for a vote in favor of a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

And, as with any strong congressional leader, there's a price members are expected to pay in return for DeLay's help with their legislation, their committee assignments, their chairmanships and their campaign war chests. The price is loyalty.

DeLay showed none of his usual intensity when Republicans debated their rules change Wednesday. By his own account, DeLay stood in the back of the room, only discussing the need for the change when members approached him.

"I did not instigate this," DeLay told reporters after the meeting. "It was not leader led. This came from the members themselves."

More than 200 Republicans were eligible to vote on the change and a vocal minority shouted "no" in a voice vote.

Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, said he was motivated to sponsor the change because DeLay or anyone else should be judged innocent unless proven guilty. Still, the message of support for DeLay at the meeting was not lost on him.

"It was interesting to hear the resounding emotion," Bonilla said.

"There's hardly a (Republican member) who hasn't been touched (by DeLay). A bill, a political issue, a trip where he took three puddle jumpers to get to a little town. He's fearless. He takes a lot of heat, slings and arrows and bullets. There's a lot of loyalty that comes back."

Bonilla had a good reason to thank DeLay. The leader's Texas redistricting plan increased Bonilla's winning margin from less than 52 percent in 2002 to 69 percent on Nov. 2. The state's current House lineup of 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats will change next year to 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats, thanks to DeLay's plan.

LaHood and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut — another Republican opponent of the rules change — both said it sends the wrong message of favoritism toward DeLay and congressional leaders.

Shays, elected in 1987, said he realizes his opposition could cost him a committee chairmanship in the next Congress.

"They don't have to tell you these things," he said. "The people you're passing judgment on are the people who are making the decisions."

But Shays still had a backhanded compliment for the leader he wasn't afraid to cross.

"If I ever had to face a knife," he said, "it would be in my belly and not in my back."