"Catch XXIII" Continued...

Issue: "Tsunami," Jan. 15, 2005

Even if Rep. DeLay were completely innocent, they reasoned, a politically motivated indictment could cripple the party by sidelining its most canny-and aggressive-leader. The threat to Rep. DeLay appeared imminent, because grand juries issue indictments if there is merely a "reasonable expectation" of wrongdoing. That's a much easier burden of proof than Rep. DeLay would eventually face in a criminal trial, where prosecutors would have to establish his guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Despite the legal logic behind their move, Republicans were bombarded with complaints from angry constituents, and some members grumbled that the party had been forced to tarnish its image for the sake of one leader. Rep. DeLay's surprise move on Monday night sought to reverse the damage. Members quickly honored his request to return to the earlier rule, even though it would seem to put his leadership in jeopardy.

"I feel like we have just taken a shower," said a relieved Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). "It allows the Republicans to focus on the issues, the agenda that is before us, and not to have Tom DeLay be the issue."

House Republican leaders also backed down from their plan to gut the rule that tripped up Rep. DeLay in the first place. House Rule XXIII says members must act "at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House." If the ethics committee decides that a lawmaker has discredited the body, he or she can be publicly reprimanded-even if no specific laws or rules were violated.

Rep. DeLay, known for his aggressive partisanship, ran afoul of Rule XXIII three times last year by getting too close to lobbyists and twisting too many arms in pursuit of votes. Unanimous rebukes by the ethics committee embarrassed the party, though allies like Speaker Hastert argued that the vagueness of the rule itself was to blame.

In the end, however, Speaker Hastert withdrew his support for throwing out Rule XXIII, allowing Republicans to re-group and focus on the president's legislative agenda. With tsunami relief, terrorism, tax reform, and Social Security overhaul on the table, it was time to abandon the pomp and start priming the pump.


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