Washington's Other Tough Texan

Why Tom DeLay is making the White House nervous

President Bush and Tom DeLay would seem to be Lone Star soulmates. Both conservative Texas politicians turned to Christianity in middle age to combat drinking problems. At 56, both prefer plain talk and place a premium on legislative accomplishments. But after working closely together for 2 1/2 years on issues ranging from tax cuts to abortion restrictions, the two now seem at cross-purposes. DeLay, the hard-charging House Majority Leader, is pursuing an aggressively partisan agenda just as the White House wants to shift into compassionate conservative mode for 2004.

For all of his fund-raising prowess and rock-solid support from the conservative GOP base, DeLay, a former Houston-area pest exterminator, could become a political liability for a President who wants to reach out to middle-of-the-road voters. Indeed, observers such as Rice University political scientist Earl Black think DeLay is on his way to becoming as polarizing as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom Democrats successfully tarred as a right-wing extremist. "Tom DeLay is too divisive to help the Republican Party across the nation," says Black. "His effectiveness is overshadowed by his ideology."

Not so, says DeLay, who insists he is speaking up for his conservative colleagues. "We're allies [with the White House] -- we're not rubber stamps," he says. "I look at Congress as a co-equal branch." But in recent weeks, that alliance has been strained. DeLay's refusal to extend a child tax credit to low-income families unless it is part of a larger tax-cut package has created a huge headache for Bush, who is being pummeled by Dems for indifference to the poor.

It's not the only time that DeLay has gone off the reservation. After the President said he supported extending the ban on assault weapons when it expires next year, DeLay snorted that the measure would not pass the House.

DeLay's bluntness is even complicating foreign policy. A fierce supporter of Israel, he has warned the President not to pressure Prime Minister Ariel Sharon into making concessions until Palestinian violence is completely quelled. And in a speech in early June, DeLay said the U.S. should be pursuing trade with Taiwan and denounced China as "a backward, corrupt anachronism run by decrepit tyrants."

Tough talk from a tough Texan. But it's not just on policy that DeLay seems to be undercutting Bush's careful attempts to build bipartisan support. Case in point: DeLay stage-managed a clumsy attempt by Texas Republicans to eviscerate seven Democratic congressional districts. When Democratic legislators fled the state to deprive Republicans of a quorum, the Majority Leader's office allegedly had the FBI and Homeland Security Dept. track them down. DeLay denies any wrongdoing, and Homeland's Inspector General found no improper conduct. The Justice Dept. and a state grand jury are still investigating. Still, DeLay may prevail. Governor Rick Perry has ordered a special legislative session on June 30 to take up redistricting.

DeLay is also taking heat for ties to corporate interests. He has collected tens of thousands of dollars from tobacco, airline, and energy companies to defray $500,000 in legal bills from a since-settled lawsuit over past fund-raising practices. And Democrats have asked Justice to investigate DeLay's backing for a legislative proposal that would have allegedly benefited executives of Kansas-based Westar Energy Inc. After it donated $25,000 to his political action committee in May, 2002, DeLay voted to exempt Westar from securities regulations. The proposal was dropped when the company came under federal investigation for fraud. DeLay says that his free-market philosophy -- and not the donation -- prompted his support.

Democrats are convinced that payback is coming. "This is a mean-spirited, skate-along-the-edge kind of guy," says Representative Martin Frost (D-Tex.), who would have been squeezed out by DeLay's congressional map. "Sooner or later, he's going to fall through the ice."

Still, in many ways, DeLay is no Gingrich. Despite his unvarnished conservatism, DeLay has courted key GOP centrists and helped fill their campaign coffers. "He's willing to listen, whether or not he agrees with you," says moderate Representative Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.). This mastery of carrot and stick has made DeLay one of the most effective players on the Hill. "If I have a huge problem, I go to DeLay," says a veteran business lobbyist. "If DeLay says yes, problem solved."

What's more, DeLay can be a useful foil for Bush -- up to a point. Candidate Bush appealed to centrists in 2000 by blasting House Republicans for trying to "balance their budget on the backs of the poor." But what worked then is embarrassing Team Bush now. Trying to recover from the flap over child tax credits, the Senate quickly passed a narrowly tailored fix. DeLay, however, packaged the child credit with nearly $80 billion in other tax cuts, creating a bill that some GOP senators won't accept. Negotiations between the House and Senate are dragging out a controversy the White House wants to go away.

Although Bush aides are often uncomfortable with DeLay's freelancing, the Prez is personally fond of "the Hammer" and respects his steely resolve. "DeLay's job is to push the envelope" to satisfy the right wing, says one Bush adviser, adding that the White House knows that the best it can do is contain him as much as possible.

Still, to an Administration that prides itself on message discipline, DeLay sometimes seems like an unguided missile. Amid the explosions, Bush strategists have reason to worry that he ultimately might do more damage to his friends than his enemies.

By Alexandra Starr and Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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