House Republicans have decided, at least until the new year, to focus on policy instead of Tom DeLay's political future, CBS News chief political correspondent Gloria Borger reports.
At a closed door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday, the question of when or if the indicted former majority leader will return to his post did not arise, as some had anticipated.
Instead, Borger reports, the Republican caucus focused on its agenda. Privately, however, GOP House members continue to be worried about whether DeLay's ethics problems will rub off on them as they head into the tough midterm elections.
A strategic decision has clearly been made that at least for the next two weeks the focus will be on policy. And when Congress returns sometime in the new year, House Republicans will get together and decide whether they want to elect new permanent leaders.
Rep. Roy Blunt, who assumed DeLay's duties when the Texan was charged, told reporters Tuesday he would not oppose elections early next year for a permanent replacement if the rank and file wanted it. But the Missouri Republican swiftly added he doesn't believe it will come to that.
"I believe Mr. DeLay's situation will be resolved by then and I believe it will be resolved to his satisfaction," he said.
A second member of the leadership, Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, notified fellow Republicans he intends to remain as chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee through the 2006 elections. Reynolds said there had been "far too many rumors regarding ... potential leadership elections," and said the speculation "diverts the energy necessary to both implement our important legislative agenda and prepare for the crucial 2006 elections."
DeLay, who was forced to step aside temporarily as majority leader when charges were filed on Sept. 28, has made clear his intention of reclaiming the post if and when he is cleared — as he consistently predicts will be the case. While the Texan won the dismissal of a conspiracy charge Monday, money laundering charges remain.
Under House GOP rules, he is entitled to reclaim his leadership post once cleared of the charges, unless an election has been held to pick a permanent replacement in the meantime.
DeLay told a few reporters during the day that his attempts to clear his name are "ahead of schedule," and he expects a hearing before Christmas on a motion to dismiss the remaining charges for prosecutorial misconduct.
As for the internal House politics, he said, "There is no leadership election. There is no scheduled leadership election.... I'm still the elected majority leader."
By accident or design, the schedule fashioned by House GOP leaders for early 2006 works to his advantage. After wrapping up its work for the year, the House will not return to session until Jan. 31. That is unusually late in the month, and two weeks after the Senate intends to be in session to debate the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. It also give DeLay additional time for a trial.
With DeLay's fate uncertain, some Republicans have been vocal in either calling for an election or predicting it would be held.
"It looks like it's far more likely than not that we will have leadership elections in January," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. He said discontent already exists among Republicans over the deficit and spending and DeLay's pending trial will "exacerbate" that.
DeLay's spokesman, Kevin Madden, differed with that assessment. "There are more roadblocks to a leadership election in the current political environment than there are avenues," he said. Under GOP House rules, it takes a petition signed by 50 lawmakers to hold a meeting to discuss new elections. A majority vote would then be required to clear the way for the elections themselves, which presumably would be held after a brief period for campaigning.
DeLay's strategy has been to make the legal calendar dovetail with the political calendar as much as possible, at the same time he pursues every opportunity for dismissal of the charges or outright acquittal.
While DeLay, 58, has called repeatedly for a speedy trial, Madden said the congressman currently has three pretrial motions pending. They seek a change of venue out of Travis County, Texas; a separate trial from two co-defendants; and perhaps most significantly, the dismissal of charges on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct.
DeLay, who earlier won the recusal of the original judge in the case, won a partial legal victory on Monday when Judge Pat Priest threw out a conspiracy charge. At the same time, Priest let money laundering charges stand, and a trial, if it is held, would likely be in January.
DeLay and two GOP fundraisers, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, are accused of illegally funneling $190,000 in corporate donations to 2002 Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature. Under Texas law, corporate money cannot be directly used for political campaigns, but it can be used for administrative purposes.