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They Come Not To Bury Tom Delay -- Yet

Publicly, embattled House Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay enjoys the near-unanimous support of Republican lawmakers. Colleagues defend him against a list of ethics allegations and excoriate Dems and the media for spreading rumors.

But behind the scenes, it's a different story. Capitol cloakrooms are full of chatter about who might take DeLay's job if -- or, many believe, when -- the Texas firebrand falls. And among business lobbyists, the follow-up question is: "Who's best for Corporate America?"

This quiet jockeying is risky business for the three front-runners in the post-DeLay sweepstakes: House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), House Education & Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (Ohio), and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.). Overt campaigning would be viewed as disloyal. But no one wants a rival to get a leg up. Says one GOP staffer: "All three are nervous about the others."

The stakes are higher than DeLay's job. One of the trio could become the next Speaker of the House, second in the Presidential line of succession. President Bush persuaded Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois not to retire in 2006, but he may only stay through '08. "We all know that these three guys are going to be sitting at the leadership table," says one Republican member of Congress. "The only question is, which seats will they be sitting in?"

So who are the three anxious amigos in the wings? They all scored a perfect 100% on the most recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce rankings for probusiness votes. Their differences are mostly stylistic.

Boehner, 55, the chain-smoking former chair of the Republican Conference, is crafting a comeback after he was blamed when the GOP lost seats in the late 1990s and was ousted from the leadership. He's a business favorite: For three years Boehner ran the "Thursday Group," a weekly meeting of top lobbyists. He's also seen as close to the Ohio steel industry and local companies such as Procter & Gamble Co. (PG).

Darling of the Right

Reynolds, a jocular fourth-termer from upstate New York, has spent far less time in Washington than his rivals. But his ability to raise and distribute money makes friends fast. "Tom Reynolds is the one to watch -- he has all the qualities to be the next Speaker," says GOP strategist Scott Reed. Reynolds, 54, is an ally of Wall Street firms as well as upstate companies such as Eastman Kodak Co. (EK).

Blunt, 55, No. 3 in the current leadership and a DeLay prot?g?, is the early favorite for promotion. He's a darling of the Religious Right, tight with Bush, and close to Missouri companies, including Anheuser-Busch (BUD), Emerson Electric (EMR), and Jones Financial Cos. If Republicans believe DeLay was railroaded, Blunt benefits. But if The Hammer gets nailed, Blunt could suffer collateral damage.

The big imponderable is DeLay's future. He denies wrongdoing, and unless new charges surface, he could well survive through the 2006 election. But even some hard-core defenders are starting to think about A.D. -- after DeLay. That's a world of opportunity -- and peril -- for three ambitious lawmakers who would be leader.

A fix for the asbestos morass is high on President Bush's tort reform agenda, but a proposal being weighed in Congress might lead instead to more litigation. So claims Theodore B. Olson, Bush's former solicitor general, who is threatening to sue if Congress approves a $140 billion asbestos trust fund being debated by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Olson, now at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington, represents five existing private asbestos trust funds that don't want to be part of a global fund. Olson says the proposal might violate the Constitution's ban on taking property without pay, the equal protection principle, and due process guarantees. "It's stealing by the government," he says. If private funds can opt out and take their money with them, the global trust can't work.

When Ukrainian President Viktor A. Yushchenko addressed Congress in April, he asked that his nation be exempted from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The law is a Cold War relic that denied the Soviet Bloc favorable tariffs because of Communist curbs on emigration, particularly of Jewish refuseniks. "Please tear down this wall," Yushchenko pleaded. The Soviet Union may be dead, but Jackson-Vanik lives -- and don't expect the wall to crumble soon. Hollywood and other industries use the law as a weapon to demand tough anti-piracy protections. Ukraine and other Eastern European countries where piracy is widespread will have trouble winning waivers.

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