The No. 3 Republican in the Senate said Sunday that embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay needs to answer questions about his ethics and "let the people then judge for themselves."
Sen. Rick Santorum's comments seem to reflect the nervousness among congressional Republicans about the fallout from the increased scrutiny into DeLay's way of doing business. One of DeLay's Republican colleagues in the House called him an "absolute embarrassment" and doubled DeLay would last as majority leader.
DeLay, a Texas Republican, has been dogged in recent months by reports of possible ethics violations. There have been questions about his overseas travel, campaign payments to family members and his connections to lobbyists who are under investigation.
"I think he has to come forward and lay out what he did and why he did it and let the people then judge for themselves," said Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
"But from everything I've heard, again, from the comments and responding to those, is everything he's done was according to the law," Santorum said in a broadcast interview.
"Now you may not like some of the things he's done," Santorum said. "That's for the people of his district to decide, whether they want to approve that kind of behavior or not."
DeLay's spokesman, Dan Allen, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the congressman "looks forward to the opportunity of sitting down with the ethics committee chairman and ranking member to get the facts out and to dispel the fiction and innuendo that's being launched at him by House Democrats and their liberal allies."
The majority leader was admonished three times last year by that committee. The committee has been in limbo since March, when its five Democrats balked at adopting Republican-developed rules.
At a town hall meeting Saturday in Greenwich, Connecticut, Republican Rep. Christopher Shays told constituents that he did not think DeLay "is going to survive."
Shays, a moderate who has irked Republicans by bucking party leaders on some prominent issues, described DeLay "as an absolute embarrassment to me and to the Republican Party," according to the account Sunday in The Advocate of Stamford.
In November, Shays protested a party rule change that would allow DeLay to retain his leadership position even if he was indicted in an ongoing Texas campaign finance investigation.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said last week that the controversy was distracting DeLay from dealing with more pressing problems before Congress.
Santorum, however, said DeLay is "very effective in leading the House" and that "to date, has not been compromised."
A senior Democratic senator, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, had this advice for the Republicans who control both the House and Senate: "Be careful about how closely you embrace Mr. DeLay."
Dodd cited the new rules for the ethics committee that House Republicans rammed through in the wake of DeLay's difficulties. Those rules require a bipartisan vote before an investigation can be launched. DeLay's office also helped mount a counterattack last fall against Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican, who was the ethics committee chairman when it came down against DeLay.
"Unfortunately, in his particular case, there's a process that he's tried to change so they could actually reach a determination as to whether or not he's innocent or guilty of the things he's been charged with," Dodd said. "But this is not going to go away."
DeLay "becomes the poster child for a lot of the things the Democrats think are wrong about Republican leadership. As long as he's there, he's going to become a pretty good target," Dodd said in a broadcast interview.
DeLay, who took center stage in passing legislation designed to keep alive Terri Schiavo, also has found that President Bush and congressional colleagues are distancing themselves from his comments, after her death, about the judges involved in her case.
"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior," DeLay said, raising the prospect of impeaching members of a separate and independent branch of government. Later, he complained of "an arrogant and out of control judiciary that thumbs its nose at Congress and the president."
Bush, declining to endorse DeLay's comments, said Friday that he supports "an independent judiciary." He added, "I believe in proper checks and balances."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said last week that the judges "handled it in a fair and independent way," although he had hoped for a different result.
Democrats have said DeLay's remarks were tantamount to inciting violence against judges.