Rep. Tom DeLay is if nothing else a realist, and over the past week or so, he began to sense that his support inside the Republican caucus was cratering, particularly as allies of his began to be importuned by the MSM in the wake of the Jack Abramoff plea deal.
House Democratic Campaign Committee chairman Rahm Emanuel and his staff had presented a number of Congressional reporters whom they favored and used for leaks with a list of 20 to 30 GOP members names to pester over the Abramoff and DeLay stories. "It was all about hit them and their consciences," says a DCCC staffer. "We didn't have to do much heavy lifting on this one. The media did it for us once we laid down the breadcrumbs to show them the way."
As the media worked away on the appearance of diminishing support for DeLay, creating the impression that his ouster was inevitable, DeLay was hearing from some of his stauncher supporters that he had at least to consider his options before returning full time to Washington at the end of the month.
DeLay and his advisers had been insisting that they expected a resolution to his legal troubles in Texas no later than March, and that the results would be a clear and definitive win for him. But DeLay understood that Abramoff's plea deal presented another layer of potential legal jeopardy that would surely linger well into election season.
"Tom DeLay is not the kind of man who lives in a cocoon and ignores reality," says an ally in the House. "That is what made him such a good tactician. It shouldn't surprise people that he saw the dynamics at play and made the right decision."
The fact that the White House was exerting some pressure on him didn't seem to matter. Before the Christmas recess, he rebuffed meetings with senior White House advisers and declined a meeting in Texas earlier this month with outside White House adviser Ed Gillespie. DeLay was said by some to be angry that other outside Bush operatives had been asking influential Republican donors in Texas with ties to both Bush and DeLay to place calls to DeLay operatives and supporters about his having him do what was right for the party both in the state and nationally.
THINGS SEEM TO BE SHIFTING by the hour, but this is where things stood as of late last night:
Republican Whip and Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) both activated what amounted to whip operations on Friday night. We were hearing from our House sources that each had set up five to seven-member teams that were making calls on their candidates' behalf over the weekend.
For Blunt, the team includes: Reps. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Dave Camp (Mich.), Ander Crenshaw (Fla.), Bob Goodlatte (Vir.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), and Sue Myrick (N.C.). With the exception of the moderate Kirk, each is conservative and is considered to be part of the "second tier" of Republicans we referred to late last week: senior, respected, with seats on the most influential and desirable committees.
Of note are Blackburn and Kirk. Blackburn was viewed as an ally of potential House leader candidate Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), given their high profile battle with House leadership over appropriations cuts. Kirk was one of the 25 or so members of the caucus who let it be known that he would sign on to a formal request to leadership for a new election.
Boehner's team has a more moderate cast, perhaps to reach out more readily to those caucus members who aren't close to Blunt. Reps. Melissa Hart (Penn.), John Kline (Minn.), Thad McCotter (Mich.), Devin Nunes (Calif.), Jim Saxton (N.J), Mike Simpson (Idaho), and Pat Tiberi (Ohio). Hart and Saxton especially are viewed as more moderate than other members of Boehner's team. Kline was another of the caucus members willing to sign on to an election petition.
Sources close to both Kline and Kirk say that neither man was part of the initial group of two or three members who organized the petition drive, and that neither had discussed his decision with the men they are now supporting. But what would you expect them to say?
Rep. Mike Rogers, whom we identified as a dark horse candidate for leaders, seemingly took his name out of the running on Sunday morning by announcing that if the Whip position were to open up (due to Blunt's election as leader), he would seek it. Rep. Mike Pence has expressed similar interest in the Whip position.
On Sunday morning, it appeared that Blunt and Boehner had cleared the field of competitors. There is talk that Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.) is looking to throw his hat in the ring. He was making a series of phone calls on Saturday night and Sunday morning. It was not clear where he appeared to be leaning. Some of Lewis's more influential donors in California were telling friends on Sunday morning that Lewis had decided not to seek the position, though Lewis staffers and outside advisers said it was too early to rule him out completely.
GIVEN THAT THE ELECTION is about three weeks away, things should remain in flux. There is plenty of time for damaging leaks: look almost immediately for the Washington Post and the New York Times to revisit Blunt's ill-fated decision to take up with a tobacco lobbyist, as well as his connections to DeLay. On Boehner's side, there is his proclivity to attend fundraisers on golf courses in between forays along the "K Street Corridor," as well as what was revealed in the 1996 cell phone conversation between Boehner and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, infamously and illegally taped by Democratic activists, and its subsequent leaking to the press by operatives of Rep. Jim McDermott.
"Both men are going to come under pretty serious attack," says a senior House Republican staffer. "But both of these guys have made it clear for a pretty long time that they wanted this job. I'm sure they are ready." House Speaker Dennis Hastert has announced that the election will be held the week after January 31.
What is certain is that Tom DeLay remains one of the most influential and powerful members of Congress inside his caucus, and his relationship with both frontrunners for his post have been rocky. Neither Boehner nor Blunt is now on particularly good terms with DeLay, and there is an expectation that the man who proudly accepted the nickname of "The Hammer" still has a few more Machiavellian maneuvers to play out over the next couple of months.
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