The Battle for the GOP's Soul

In a tense power play, House conservatives helped derail the rise of Californian David Dreier to be their acting leader with Tom DeLay under indictment

By Eamon Javers

Wednesday morning, Sept. 28, began as just another day for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's spokesman Kevin Madden. He sent out his daily e-mail alert to the media -- joking about the fortunes of the Baltimore Orioles and detailing the House's agenda for the day. On the schedule: amendments to the U.S. Grain Standards Act and a few other routine items.

But by the close of business, his boss's political future was in doubt, Republican leadership was in turmoil, and a battle was on for the soul of the GOP, pitting cultural conservatives against the party's highest leadership. A bland day it would not be.

The first sign of trouble came when DeLay's Chief of Staff Tim Berry delivered the news to the Speaker's office: The Majority Leader had been indicted on conspiracy charges by Travis County (Tex.) District Attorney Ronnie Earle. House GOP rules prevent an indicted leader from remaining in power and shortly thereafter, DeLay simply sent a brief note to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) saying he would resign from the leadership.


  Actually, given that rumors of an indictment from Earle have been swirling for months, the Speaker had been planning for just this kind of bombshell for weeks. His staffers had consulted with powerful House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), say sources, about alternative scenarios should DeLay be indicted.

Hastert also met personally with the House's No. 3 Republican, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and with Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Blunt's deputy whip, in the weeks leading up to the indictment to prep for what might happen if DeLay was forced to step down. Initially, says one source, Hastert leaned toward selecting Dreier to replace DeLay -- which would have bypassed Blunt, but sources insist no formal job offer was made. Still, in the first minutes after the indictment hit the newswires, Dreier's name was floated in the press as the likely anointed successor.

But when a rump group of conservative members saw the reports, they banded together to block Drier, who one aide grumbled "is not a true conservative." Among Dreier's faults, in the eyes of this group: The Californian's pro-trade stance and his votes going against conservative "litmus-test issues." He supports stem-cell research, and he opposes a Constitutional amendment against gay marriage.


  At a meeting in the Capitol basement, about 30 members of the conservative Republican Study Committee gathered to digest the fallout from DeLay's indictment. Led by Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the group had defied their own leaders in denouncing the GOP's free-spending response to Hurricane Katrina just last week and were in no mood to take orders from the Speaker.

In the closed-door meeting at 1:30 that even key staffers were banned from attending, RSC members decided that they could not tolerate Dreier ascending to such a crucial slot, say inside sources. And even as DeLay was telling the media in a conference room overflowing with journalists that this had been "one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history," RSC leaders including Pence, Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), and Representative Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) were marching unnoticed up a back hallway to give their thoughts to Hastert.

By then, however, Dreier's ascension may have already been doomed. All across Washington, reps from conservative groups were flooding the Speaker's office with e-mail and phone calls opposing the Californian.


  Accounts of Hastert's meeting with RSC leaders from a number of sources say the conservatives were poised to announce their opposition to Dreier. Emerging from the RSC session with Hastert, Feeney declined to detail the private conversations but added, "a lot of us have gotten so dependent on Tom DeLay's leadership to protect and promote conservative principles that we just want to be certain that the agenda is going to go forward in a way we're comfortable with."

Facing a debilitating a power vacuum, the entire Republican Conference then huddled in an emergency closed-door meeting at 3 p.m. in the Capitol basement, as packs of reporters paced outside. After DeLay spoke to the subdued crowd -- and received a round of applause -- Hastert stunned some members in the room by announcing his intention to place Blunt as temporary leader, not Dreier.

Further, Cantor, a fresh-faced third-term congressman, would step in to Blunt's vote-counting Majority Whip's role. Dreier, Hastert told the assembled members, would take on some additional responsibilities, but would remain as Rules Committee chairman -- a compromise arrangement.


  During the meeting, more than a dozen representatives addressed their colleagues, expressing emotions ranging from anger to relief, inside sources say. Some rank-and-file members demanded a set date by which the "temporary" leadership roles would expire. Hastert appeased them by agreeing to revisit the issue after Christmas.

Representative J.D. Hayworth of Arizona pushed for a recorded vote on DeLay's replacement -- but his effort went nowhere. Hastert's slate was accepted by acclaim, without objections. Nonetheless, Hayworth pronounced himself satisfied that the caucus had elevated Blunt. "What I wanted to see, and I saw, was that the will of the conference was worked, and we're moving forward," he told reporters later. "Our Speaker is our Speaker because he's a very good listener, and you saw that today."

As Hastert made the announcement of the new leadership lineup before a battery of TV cameras, other leaders commented on the changes. Dreier, who was standing to the rear of the group, was offered the chance to speak, but he declined, stepping back from the microphones.

Javers is BusinessWeek's congressional correspondent in Washington

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