Democrats sought election-year gain Thursday from Majority Leader Tom DeLay's latest brush with the House ethics committee, while the powerful Texas lawmaker drew widespread expressions of support from fellow Republicans.
Republicans must decide "do they want an ethically unfit person to be their majority leader, or do they want to remove the ethical cloud that hangs over the Capitol?" said California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader.
As Pelosi challenged the GOP, the Democrats' campaign committee attacked Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays, a prominent GOP moderate, for recently praising DeLay's performance as leader.
Despite the numerous Republican lawmakers who volunteered support for DeLay, there were murmurs of discontent within the Republican ranks.
"There's an evaluation underway ... as to whether now is the time for new leadership," said Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, who quickly added that he believes support for Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., "transcends all this."
"Every now and then you have to go through re-evaluation and renewal," he added. Wamp said he was referring to a scheduled mid-November meeting at which GOP lawmakers will select their leaders for the Congress that convenes in 2005.
CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports it's unclear if the rebukes will keep DeLay from moving up to Speaker of the House. But the ethics charges are fueling partisan bickering.
Less than one month before Election Day, DeLay drew solid expressions of support from GOP leaders.
"Tom DeLay is a good man. He fights hard for what he believes, but he has never put personal interests ahead of the best interests of the country," Hastert said in a statement shortly after the ethics committee's latest action was announced Wednesday night.
In a letter to DeLay, the committee of five Republicans and five Democrats wrote: "In view of the number of instances to date on which the committee has found it necessary to comment on conduct in which you engaged, it is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions" to assure full compliance with the rules.
Yet Republican aides said any concern about DeLay was mixed with gratitude for his efforts to extend the GOP majority. That is particularly the case, they said, since he engineered a bitterly contested mid-decade redistricting of Texas congressional seats that Republicans hope can translate into a gain of as many as seven seats on Election Day.
An unflinching conservative, DeLay rose to power in 1994, when Republicans gained a majority and he defeated a rival backed by party leader Newt Gingrich to become whip. Over time, he built a reputation as impervious to criticism and able to count — and deliver — votes on difficult bills in a House increasingly divided along party lines.
At the same time, he built a formidable fund-raising operation that aided Republican candidates and helped expand his power base when they won office.
He moved up to majority leader two years ago when the spot became vacant. And while he has rivals within the party, he has long been viewed by many as Hastert's likeliest successor when the speaker steps down.
DeLay depicted the ethics committee's latest letter as something akin to exoneration. He told reporters he was "very pleased that the ethics committee and the honorable people who serve on the ethics committee have dismissed the frivolous charges brought against me and that's it."
Privately, he convened a meeting of key supporters in his office Wednesday evening after learning of the committee's actions, and reached out to other members of the rank and file during the day to counter descriptions of the report as a condemnation.
The committee wrote that DeLay "created an appearance" of favoritism when he mingled at a 2003 golf outing with an energy company's executives days after they contributed to a political organization associated with him. Westar Energy was seeking help with legislation that was then at a critical stage of House-Senate negotiations.
The committee made clear DeLay did not solicit contributions from Westar in return for a favor — an act that would have been far more serious.
DeLay also raised "serious concerns," the panel said, byto help locate Texas Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state in an effort to prevent the GOP-controlled legislature from passing a redistricting plan.
On a third allegation, that DeLay violated Texas campaign finance rules, the panel delayed action pending completion of an investigation by state authorities. A county grand jury in Texas has indicted three political operatives with ties to DeLay in the case, but no charges have been filed against the majority leader.
Last week, in a separate case, the ethics committeefor offering to support the House candidacy of a Michigan lawmaker's son in return for the lawmaker's vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
The latest allegations were filed by Rep. Chris Bell, a first-term Democrat from Texas who lost his seat in a primary that followed the DeLay-engineered redrawing of House district lines.