WASHINGTON (AP) – Indicted Texas Rep. Tom DeLay will serve as a “very powerful adviser” to the Republican leadership while he battles the conspiracy charge that forced him to step aside as House majority leader, a GOP spokesman said Thursday.

“His experience and insight for over a decade of the Republican majority is invaluable to our leadership and to our members and will be used wisely,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Bonjean said Hastert and DeLay – two longtime allies – met privately in the Capitol, one day after the Texan was charged with a single count of conspiracy by a Texas grand jury investigating alleged violations of state election law.

The disclosure came as Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri stepped into his new job as temporary majority leader and several rank-and-file Republicans acknowledged that DeLay’s legal woes may preclude him from ever regaining his formal place at the GOP leadership table.

A Texas judge ordered DeLay to appear in court in Austin on Oct. 21 to face the charge that he conspired to funnel corporate money to state political campaigns.

Conservative Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, a former prosecutor, said it may take 18 months to three years before DeLay’s case runs its course. “I have no idea” whether the Texan will ever return to the leadership, he added.

After weeks spent defending DeLay against allegations of corruption, Republicans said his indictment had unified them at a time of falling polls and internal differences over legislation.

“The tragedy of Tom DeLay’s indictment has unified the conference in a different way,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, chairman of the GOP House campaign committee. “Most people see this as a political indictment.”

Majority Republicans are committed to passing legislation to cut taxes this fall as well as wringing billions of dollars from benefit programs such as Medicaid – at a time when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are pushing federal spending and deficits higher.

In addition, energy legislation is on the schedule for next week as Republicans try to address consumer concerns about soaring gasoline prices. Immigration legislation and a bill to overhaul federal pension law may also reach the House floor before lawmakers adjourn for the year.

For a second consecutive day, DeLay cast his indictment as the work of a partisan prosecutor in Texas, while the House Democratic leader, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, said it was proof of a “culture of corruption” among Republicans.

DeLay insisted he was innocent and would be vindicated.

“This is a political witchhunt of the sleaziest magnitude,” he told one interviewer, and he said it would not deter him from advancing the GOP agenda nationally or working for the Houston area that he represents.

DeLay is the only Republican who has been in the leadership continuously since the GOP took control of the House after the 1994 elections. For the first time in 11 years, he went to work during the day without the Capitol office that is the perquisite of a leader.

The staff that served him as majority leader remained in place in the suite of offices he had long used.

Bonjean’s remarks about a continuing role for DeLay raised questions about the extent of the powers that Blunt will hold.

Even before he spoke, Democratic leader Pelosi wondered aloud about the switch at the GOP leadership table. “It would be interesting to see what authority he brings to the office, and is he the acting leader, and what does that mean,” she said.

Hastert’s spokesman said “no formal structure has been created” for the leadership to consult with DeLay. At the same time, he said, “he will continue to be a very powerful adviser to the leadership in what we hope will be a very temporary situation.”‘

Several officials said Hastert initially had intended to recommend Rep. David Dreier of California to take over many of DeLay’s responsibilities.

DeLay was in favor, but Blunt objected, these officials said. At the same time, conservatives rebelled, and Hastert reversed course. Moderate Republican members also were opposed to Hastert’s initial plans, according to one lawmaker familiar with the events.

AP-ES-09-29-05 1744EDT

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