WASHINGTON – Embattled Rep. Tom DeLay's hopes of reclaiming his position as House majority leader suffered a potentially fatal setback on Friday as growing numbers of fellow Republicans called for new leadership in the midst of a congressional corruption scandal.
"It's clear that we need to elect a new majority leader to restore the trust and confidence of the American people," said Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, as two fellow Republicans circulated a petition calling for new elections.
Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., whose own hold on power appears secure, signaled he would not stand in the way of elections that could produce changes in several leadership posts.
"This is consistent with the speaker's announcement ... that House Republicans would revisit this matter at the beginning of this year," said his spokesman, Ron Bonjean.
DeLay gave no indication he was ready to renounce his hopes of returning to the post he held before his indictment last year on campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas.
But with Hastert planning an overseas trip beginning early next week, it appeared an announcement on new elections could come within a few days.
The developments occurred near the end of a week in which lobbyist Jack 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. Meanwhile, an Associated Press/Ipsos poll showed that 49 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer to see Democrats in control of Congress, and 36 percent said Republicans.
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who took over as majority leader temporarily when DeLay stepped aside following his indictment on state charges, is certain to run for the post if new elections are held. Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, a former member of the leadership, is his likeliest rival, and there may be other contenders as well.
DeLay, whose defiant, take-no-prisoners style has won him the admiration and respect of fellow Republicans, has insisted he is innocent of wrongdoing and has said he intends to reclaim his leadership post once he is cleared.
Hastert and other Republicans accepted that arrangement temporarily last year, and DeLay maneuvered to win the dismissal of charges or gain an acquittal by early February.
But Abramoff's guilty pleas appears 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. "There are stories of more indictments or questions associated with Jack Abramoff. And I think that Tom DeLay is going to have to concentrate on that."
Spokesman Kevin Madden said DeLay "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."
"And he appreciates that a majority of his colleagues won't give in to what is essentially character assassination by insinuation," Madden said.
Republican rules permit an election to fill the vacancy, and aides to Reps. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Charles Bass of New Hampshire said the two men were circulating a petition that 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.
While Flake is a conservative in a safe congressional district, others calling for a change were more moderate Republicans who could face difficult re-election campaigns this fall.
"I do not want Tom Delay to return," said Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, who has faced tough challengers in several recent elections.
"Three of his former senior staff members have admitted or have been implicated in corrupt and illegal activities to get money for themselves by influencing legislation," she said. "Whether or not Mr. Delay was involved himself or knew this was going on, he is responsible for his office. I cannot tolerate this."
Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., said through a spokesman that he, too, will sign the petition.
"He believes the conference needs bold leaders whose integrity is above reproach and who will lead us on much needed ethics reform and other reforms necessary to move the nation forward," said the spokesman, John Gentzel.
Abramoff frequently had stressed his ties to DeLay in the course of seeking business from prospective lobbying clients, and had hired a number of former DeLay aides as employees. One of them, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty last November as part of the same investigation that led to Abramoff's confession of guilt this week.
According to papers filed in court, Abramoff paid the wife of another DeLay aide $50,000 over several months as part of an effort to kill legislation opposed by his lobbying clients.
Under GOP rules the signatures of 50 lawmakers on a petition would be sufficient to call a special meeting. Once convened, a majority vote would be required to hold elections.
Alternatively, DeLay could decide on his own to renounce his claim on the leadership post he left last year, or Hastert could intervene more forcefully, making any petition a mere formality.
Burson Taylor, an aide to Blunt, declined to comment on the developments.
David Schnittger, a spokesman for Boehner, said, "A number of members have approached Congressman Boehner in recent weeks and months. He hasn't approached them. He's not running a campaign and hasn't asked for a single vote."