THE RIGHT'S FIGHT

La Colline ("the hill") is the perfect place to hold a fund-raising dinner for a Republican congressman: it's two blocks from the Capitol, in the same building as the studios of Fox News. Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the embattled House majority leader, is to be feted there this week by lobbyist Glenn LeMunyon, one of an army of former DeLay aides who make a living peddling access to the GOP machinery they helped to build. LeMunyon's clients include Lockheed Martin and Verizon. Last year, at the Republican convention, he threw a series of bashes for Texas's members of Congress, featuring big-time rock acts and offering the opportunity (if you paid enough money) to have your picture taken with the politicians. "Republicans have much more fun than Democrats," LeMunyon said. This week's event is more low key: a quiet dinner, $2,000 for individuals, $5,000 for political action committees, with the proceeds going to DeLay's 2006 House race in Houston. "It's just a fund-raiser," said LeMunyon. "He probably does these things, like, eight times a week."

Yes, in Tom DeLay's world, when the going gets tough, the tough raise money. Most politicians react to stress and controversy by employing the duck and cover--clamming up and lying low until the storm blows over. Not DeLay. Far from avoiding fights, he picks them. Far from avoiding emotional issues, he seeks them. If there is a conservative flag to wave, especially a religious one, he wraps himself in it. The embodiment of the Republican's cash-and-carry, hardball approach to governance, DeLay is embracing the stereotype, aiming to raise twice as much money as he did for his 2004 campaign. In the old days--before the remorseless camps of Red and Blue--a politician in DeLay's predicament would have done one of two things: called a press conference to declare his innocence and answer all questions--or gone silent and called his lawyer. But now everything is a campaign, an ideological war in which the combatants, or at least some of them, believe that nothing less than the sanctity of life is at stake--and every moment is perfect for a funder at a French restaurant.

The fate of Tom (The Hammer) DeLay is important on its own; he is, after all, a key leader of the conservative movement. But something larger is at stake: the agenda of George Bush and the Republican Party, especially their shared goal of remaking the federal judiciary in the image of conservatism. Will DeLay's in-your-face approach to his own salvation help reach that goal--or sabotage the effort by turning every news cycle into a Daily Drama of DeLay? That's clearly how the Democrats want to play it. And, indeed, some Republican polltakers are seeing evidence that public support for Bush's judicial agenda is being hampered by the visibility of DeLay and his religious allies. "He helps us gets things done in the House, no question of that," said a White House insider. "But I'm not sure his strategy now is helping us--or him, for that matter."

DeLay's defense is a response to a real legal threat--not so much to him, at least for now, as to the people he was once close to. As usual, a huge pile of cash is involved--in this case, $80 million--shoveled into Washington by Indian tribes who were involved in, or who wanted to get involved in, the gaming industry. Much of that money went to enterprises run by Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist whom DeLay once called "one of my closest and dearest friends." Abramoff's activities--and those of a brace of former DeLay Hill aides--are now under scrutiny by the Justice Department and the Senate's Indian Affairs Committee, headed by Sen. John McCain.

Sources close to the Justice probe tell NEWSWEEK that prosecutors and FBI agents are seeking to determine if Abramoff and some of his associates (including Michael Scanlon, DeLay's former press secretary) may have provided unreported contributions or gratuities to members of Congress and staffers in exchange for legislative favors. (Lawyers for Abramoff and Scanlon deny wrongdoing). There is no evidence implicating DeLay in any of Abramoff's tangled business dealings. But the congressman did take foreign trips arranged by Abramoff--and the funding of all of Abramoff's enterprises is at the heart of the probe.

For the Hammer, the involvement of the Department of Justice is bad news--but not as bad as it could be. The allegations are serious enough to have drawn the attention of the Feds--whose motives can't be as easily dismissed as those of Ronnie Earle, a Texas state prosecutor and Democrat who's been tracking DeLay with Javert-like intensity. The probe is being overseen by Noel Hillman, a hard-charging career prosecutor who heads the Public Integrity Section and who has a long track record of nailing politicians of all stripes. But politics almost certainly will creep into the equation. Hillman's new boss will soon be Alice Fisher, who is widely respected but also a loyal Republican socially close to DeLay's defense team. The larger question is whether Justice--run by Bush's buddy Alberto Gonzales--will aggressively seek evidence that could lead to DeLay or to other Republicans in Congress. "I just don't know that they have the stomach for it," said a lawyer close to the probe.

While Justice grinds slowly, DeLay says that he wants the House ethics committee--which is supposed to be a nonpartisan panel--to look into the matter. But what DeLay really wants is to be cleared quickly in a friendly venue whose new, far more member-friendly rules were written at the behest of DeLay's allies. Until this year the committee could take as long as it needed to authorize a probe; under the new rules the panel would have just 45 days to make such momentous decisions. Republicans on the committee last week offered to hold hearings on their own. The Democrats, who have balked at establishing the panel in this session of Congress, refused to go along, seeing a whitewash in the making.

With no ethics committee to appeal to, DeLay is throwing himself on the mercy of the court--of conservative opinion. In New York last Friday, he took his case to the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which had whacked him earlier this year for having become all too representative of the excesses of Beltway life. He gave an interview to Fox Radio, making headlines by attacking Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy for "outrageous" legal thinking. And DeLay appeared before a cheering throng at the National Rifle Association, at one point brandishing a rifle and declaring that it was good to have friends and allies "who are armed."

Conservatives in Washington will gather en masse at the Capital Hilton May 12 for a Salute to Tom DeLay Dinner, organized by the American Conservative Union. "It's for Tom, but it's also for conservatives, and for our self-respect," said the ACU's chairman David Keene. "We haven't come this far in the movement after all these years to abandon an important friend when he needs us."

While DeLay constructs an Alamo of his own devising, it's not entirely clear whether the president is happy to be in the fort with him. He may soon have additional reason to keep his distance from the whole DeLay crowd. McCain's Senate Indian Affairs Committee has subpoenaed the records of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform--an antitax group and favorite ally of Karl Rove's shop. Sources tell NEWSWEEK that Abramoff often steered clients' funds to ATR as a way to ease access to the administration. It seems to have worked. A lawyer for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe in Michigan told NEWSWEEK that tribal leaders had "three or four" meetings at the White House--including one with Bush and another with Rove--after they gave a $25,000 donation to Norquist's group at Abramoff's request. ATR spokesman Chris Butler confirmed that Norquist arranged White House meetings for Indian tribal leaders and others who were "supportive of the president's agenda." But he said these were unrelated to any donations to the group.

For now at least, Rove remains on the barricades with the majority leader. "We strongly support Tom DeLay," he told CNN. "He's a good man, a close ally of this administration." Bush was slated to visit Galveston, Texas, this week to stump for his Social Security reform; DeLay was among the dignitaries invited to the event and to ride back to Washington on Air Force One. But no one was expecting Bush to administer a Tex-Mex abrazo. "He'll recognize him as he does any time there is a congressman at any event," said a White House aide. "Both are focused on getting the same things done," said another aide. "But there are obvious differences in leadership style." Staffers also questioned whether any of their number would be able to attend the DeLay testimonial--since most of them will just have gotten back from Bush's five-day trip to Europe. Travel can be exhausting--and not every dinner is a must.

THE RIGHT'S FIGHT | News