WASHINGTON – A Texas judge's ruling expected this week could force Rep. Tom DeLay to stand trial on conspiracy and money-laundering charges, as well as decide the future of the House Republican leadership and further shake a GOP hit hard by recent scandal.
Since the September indictment that required him to step down as House majority leader, DeLay has cast himself as the victim of a political vendetta. He has pushed for the case to be resolved before January, when Congress reconvenes, so he can quickly return to his leadership post.
Senior Judge Pat Priest is expected to rule on a motion to throw out the indictment by Tuesday.
"I see this as a do-or-die moment for Tom DeLay's future as majority leader," David Cannon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said last week.
If the charges are dismissed, DeLay, R-Texas, will be back as majority leader as soon as he can get word to Republican leaders. If not, he's looking at a trial that isn't likely to begin before January.
He still has a chance of returning as long as the House GOP caucus is patient. At any time, though, his colleagues could decide to hold new elections if at least 50 of them support a motion and it wins approval by a majority of the 230-member caucus.
Congress will adjourn in mid-December, then reconvene Jan. 18 for President Bush's State of the Union address. But members probably will recess again and not begin work until Feb. 1.
"If we have a quick time line, there is a certain segment of Congress willing to be patient," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt has filled in as majority leader. But because Blunt is largely a caretaker and may not be around by summer, his power is dramatically diminished, Canon said.
"While you can have that for a few months, you can't have that for another year. It would create an unstable situation for the party and the president. He needs leadership to shepherd his legislation through Congress too."
A ruling in DeLay's favor would certainly be a bright spot for Republicans, who have had a heavy load of bad news from slumping approval ratings for Bush, congressional scandals, the Iraq war and the CIA leak case.
The latest bad news came a week ago, when eight-term Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned after admitting he accepted $2.4 million in bribes for defense contracts.
Also causing much concern among party members is the federal investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is alleged to have defrauded several Indian tribes of millions of dollars. Abramoff's partner Michael Scanlon, a former aide to DeLay, pleaded guilty last week to conspiring to bribe officials. He is now a government witness.
DeLay was closely associated with Abramoff, once calling him "one of my closest and dearest friends." On a trip to Scotland, some of his expenses ended up on Abramoff's charge card; he used Abramoff's skybox at Washington's MCI Center for political events and his wife worked for a lobby firm that received client referrals from Abramoff.
DeLay and his wife have not been charged with any wrongdoing in the case.