WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – an aggressive, high-profile leader of the Republican Party and conservative movement – was indicted Wednesday in Texas on campaign finance charges, prompting him to step down abruptly from his powerful leadership post.

That, in turn, forced a Republican Party already shaken by ethics allegations and low approval ratings to pick new leaders, fend off questions about a potentially stalled agenda and deny any political weakness in advance of next year’s congressional elections.

DeLay’s indictment by a Texas grand jury charging him with conspiracy to circumvent campaign finance laws was met with glee from Democrats, who had already begun pushing a message that Republicans are mired in a “culture of corruption.”

The Texas congressman, who is second only in the House hierarchy to Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, criticized the charges and said he was innocent.

The action against DeLay follows last week’s news that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department for a stock sale involving his family’s health care corporation.

Shortly before that, David Safavian, a former Bush administration official, was arrested on charges that he lied and obstructed an investigation into GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Three of DeLay’s associates were indicted in the campaign finance investigation last year.

“The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, one of many similar comments by Democrats Wednesday.

For his part, DeLay, 58, speaking to reporters and later fellow House Republicans, scathingly denounced the indictment.

“Let me be very clear, I have done nothing wrong,” said DeLay, calling the indictment “a sham,” “baseless,” and “political retribution” by a “partisan fanatic.”

The target of that attack was Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat who once prosecuted Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, only to see the charges thrown out. Earle told reporters in Texas Wednesday that he has prosecuted many Democrats in the past, not just Republicans.

“Our job is to prosecute abuses of power and to bring those abuses to the public,” Earle said.

The staunchly conservative DeLay has long been a powerful figure in Congress, feared and revered for twisting arms as well as taking care of his members with perks and late-night meals in his office. His nickname, “the Hammer,” seems to say it all.

Besides being an expert vote counter, DeLay is renowned for his fundraising abilities among lobbyists on K Street in Washington and his insistence that businesses and organizations that want his help must hire only Republicans.

Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate for campaign finance reform, called DeLay “the king of a Washington-lobbyist, influence-money approach for governing America.” The charges, Wertheimer said, may also serve as an indictment of DeLay’s “pay-to-play philosophy.”

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush still considers DeLay “a good ally, a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people.”

Republicans in the House put up a united front Wednesday as news of the indictment broke during a midday vote on the House floor. Many described the charges as the result of a political witchhunt brought on by DeLay’s punishing political skills.

“Democrats resent Tom DeLay because he routinely defeats them – both politically and legislatively,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., who is overseeing the Republican effort to expand its majority in 2006.

Others simply expressed sorrow at the indictment and its ensuing turmoil.

“He’s been a very effective leader. I hate losing him,” said Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., calling the matter “a serious burden” as well as “a distraction” for DeLay.

House Republicans quickly gathered behind closed doors to elect new leaders. Speaker Hastert’s first choice, to temporarily install Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., in the majority leader’s office, fell apart shortly beforehand, GOP sources said.

Sources said Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., went to the speaker and said he wanted the job for himself. And fiscal conservatives also expressed displeasure, concerned that Dreier, the chairman of the Rules Committee, was not in sync with their goals.

Instead, Hastert nominated Blunt for the majority leader’s post, with other Republican leaders expanding their responsibilities.

“I hope everybody understands that you are innocent until you’re proven guilty,” Hastert said after the meeting. “And he will fight this, and we give him our utmost support.”

Citing a host of issues from hurricane relief to budget and immigration issues, Hastert insisted the House would press ahead with its work despite the loss of a leader who has been key to a series of legislative victories.

“We have an agenda that we want to move through,” said Hastert, an Illinois Republican who owes his post as speaker to DeLay’s support.

But parts of that agenda were already in trouble, particularly since Hurricane Katrina exposed a troubled response by the federal government. The loss of DeLay could be a serious blow.

Whether DeLay returns to the majority leader’s post, and if so when, will depend in large part on how strong the charges prove in court. It was difficult to evaluate that Wednesday, because the indictment sketched only a broad outline of what DeLay is alleged to have done.

It alleged that DeLay was part of a conspiracy to evade a state law prohibiting corporate donations to candidates. DeLay allegedly conspired with two associates to send corporate donations from his Texas political committee to the Republican National Committee – and then back to Texas legislative candidates in an effort to help them win control of the Texas House in 2002.

The felony count is punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

The two associates indicted with DeLay on Wednesday were John Colyandro, former executive director of DeLay’s Texas political action committee, and Jim Ellis, the head of DeLay’s national political committee.

Problems ahead

With midterm elections looming in 2006, some say DeLay’s problems – as well as rising gasoline prices, an unending war in Iraq, and the disastrous response to Katrina – could prompt voters to demand a change.

“They’re in charge of the government. To the extent voters get worried about this, they’re going to blame the party in control,” said Steve Elmendorf, one-time chief of staff to former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. “I really think there’s a chance we could win the House in 2006.”

David Winston, a pollster who advises both House and Senate Republicans, said the indictment may cause initial problems, but ultimately voters will wait until they find out whether a jury finds DeLay guilty or innocent.

“Right now, this is unsettling noise that in the short run is not going to be favorably received but in the long run is neutral until either a conviction or acquittal occurs,” said Winston.

Either way, the indictment is hardly helpful, said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies Republicans.

“It’s definitely not the issue Republicans want to talk about,” he said. “If you’re a politician, you don’t want to go into the town meeting or the press conference and have the first questions be about indictments of your own party leaders.”

DeLay’s indictment hadn’t even aged a full day before Democrats began using it for fundraising purposes.

“You can make your personal commitment to changing the culture of corruption by getting your Democracy Bond – a monthly commitment to contribute to the Democratic Party,” read one missive.

DeLay’s indictment did not come as a total surprise. DeLay had already been admonished by the House ethics committee three separate times on unrelated charges. After associates of DeLay were indicted last year, the House voted to throw out its rules requiring leaders to step down from their posts if indicted.

That action triggered an uproar from both Democrats and Republicans and Hastert agreed to return to the chamber’s original rules that ultimately required DeLay to step aside Wednesday.

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