House Republicans arranged an unusual monthlong January recess to give Representative Tom DeLay ample time to escape legal troubles in Texas and retake his post as majority leader. But a triumphant return was dashed this week when his longtime associate, Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty to public corruption.
The decision by Mr. Abramoff to cooperate in a broadening federal inquiry reaching deep into Mr. DeLay's inner circle led some influential Republicans on Wednesday to issue new calls for Mr. DeLay to abandon his goal of regaining his post. The scandal also emerged as a serious new distraction to the White House and Congressional Republicans as they seek to right themselves after a rocky 2005.
Leading Republicans warned in interviews that the scandal could threaten party dominance of the capital that extends from the White House to Congress to K Street unless Republicans move quickly to embrace ethics reform and show they will not tolerate criminal abuse of the substantial power they have been handed by American voters.
"The House and Senate leadership has to decide that they have got to aggressively deal with what I think is a much broader problem than just Abramoff: the lobbying process, the election process, the way this city has spun out of control," said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker. "I think the party will be in an uproar if they don't do something about it."
Mr. Gingrich was joined by others in publicly calling for House Republicans to permanently replace Mr. DeLay after the House reconvenes Jan. 31.
"They have got to hold new leadership elections," said Joe Gaylord, a veteran party insider who also urged a comprehensive overhaul of lobbying rules "from free meals to foreign money."
He added: "And if they're not tough enough on this to clean up what's going on, they are going to pay a price at the polls."
National Review, an influential conservative publication that has defended Mr. DeLay in his Texas court fight, on Wednesday encouraged him to step aside, drawing a distinction between what it saw as a partisan state-level prosecution and the inquiry by the Justice Department. It noted that not only have Mr. Abramoff and a former DeLay press secretary, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty but that other former senior DeLay aides are under scrutiny.
"Assuming that DeLay is cleared in Texas, it would be a substantial political risk for Republicans to bring DeLay back to the leadership while the Abramoff cloud is hanging over him, as it appears it will for some time to come," the publication said in an online editorial. "Why would they want to carry on under a formerly former majority leader, only to face the possibility of having to remove him from leadership yet again should he be further implicated in the Abramoff mess?"
As for Mr. DeLay, his aides and allies say his intention is still to win the Texas case and regain his leadership post and that he has done nothing wrong in his dealings with Mr. Abramoff.
"Mr. DeLay believes his support in the conference is strong," said a spokesman, Kevin Madden, referring to his House colleagues. "He doesn't back down when there are stories manufactured that attack him politically with charges that have no basis in fact."
Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Wednesday that Mr. DeLay is entitled to return to his post if he can dispose of the Texas money-laundering indictment that forced him to relinquish the leadership slot under House Republican rules. And as they left in December after a series of legislative wins, House Republicans seemed willing to give Mr. DeLay a chance to return.
But senior House Republicans, who would only speak privately about internal party affairs, said they sensed a shift against Mr. DeLay in light of the Abramoff plea and other disclosures. And they noted that Mr. DeLay could encounter new resistance in his effort to regain his position, particularly with important party voices joining the call. But they said there appeared to be no organized effort to act quickly given that House members are scattered across the globe during the recess and some are caught up in first clearing up their own links to Mr. Abramoff.
Lawmakers say Mr. DeLay owns one advantage in holding on to his post. Fifty House Republicans would have to publicly buck the powerful figure and sign a petition requesting a meeting to hold a new election. A secret ballot would then be held to vacate the post. The senior Republicans said they believed that the furor surrounding the Abramoff case could spur lawmakers to act and circulate a petition if Mr. DeLay does not decide on his own to relinquish the position.
Lawmakers and party strategists said that his absence could have serious ramifications for the Republican agenda heading into 2006 as exhibited by the struggles Republicans have encountered in advancing their priorities as 2005 came to a close. And they said that he would probably no longer have the same amount of residual clout he wielded in the immediate aftermath of the Texas indictment, when he retained an office off the Capitol floor and was closely consulted by the leadership and the chairmen of House committees.
The Abramoff scandal could also deprive House Republicans of the fund-raising power of Mr. DeLay, previously a celebrity draw on the campaign circuit, as they head into a year when they will face a stiff Democratic challenge to their thin majority.
"Tom has carried his load in helping the committee, but I think in this instance most of us recognize the challenges he has with a race at home and having to raise money for a defense fund," said Mr. Reynolds, who said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert was the House leader in attracting campaign aid.
Congressional Democrats plan an aggressive effort to make ethics a main backdrop of the election year, beginning with a series of events leading up to President Bush's State of the Union address later this month. They say they intend to make Mr. Abramoff a symbol of the dangers of one-party rule and Mr. DeLay's effort over the years to build strong ties between Republican lawmakers and the lobbying community through what became known as the K Street project.
"He's not an aberration," said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, head of the House Democratic campaign effort, referring to Mr. Abramoff. "He's a super-sized version of what you get when you put the K Street project on steroids."
Mr. Reynolds and others disputed the notion that the scandal would hurt Republicans substantially in the mid-term elections, saying past experience shows such troubles seldom spill over into other races.
"It all gets down to what is happening in that district and how that member is doing their job," Mr. Reynolds said.
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