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DeLay Leaves Congress After 22 Years of Service

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And on the other side of the Capitol, today is the last day on the Hill for Congressman Tom DeLay, of Texas.

During his 22-year career, he rose through the House ranks to become a dominant figure, serving as majority whip and as majority leader. His tough tactics were legendary, but last year's indictment on charges of laundering campaign funds back in Texas forced him to step down as leader.

As NPR's Luke Burbank reports, Tom DeLay leaves behind some admirers, some enemies, and a cloud of unresolved ethical questions.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

The smiling Congressman who bid farewell to the House last night, hardly seemed like the man who'd earned the nickname The Hammer.

Reprsentative TOM DELAY (Republican, Texas): Nothing, not this retirement, not tough losses or old wounds, can detract from the joy that I feel and the blessings I offer to this House and its members. I say goodbye today, Mr. Speaker, with few regrets. No doubts. And so, with love and gratitude for friend and foe alike, patriots all, I yield back the floor of our beloved House and I exit, as always, stage right.

(Soundbite of applause)

BURBANK: But his many opponents remember a different Tom DeLay.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): He destroyed the Democratic underpinnings of the House of Representatives.

BURBANK: George Miller is a long-time California Democrat, and not, as you might have gathered, a big Tom DeLay fan.

Rep. MILLER: Tom DeLay took the people's House, where all voices are supposed to be heard, where the minority is protected to present amendments, to present arguments, and he turned it into a winner take all. That's all it was. He cared nothing of the minority. He cared nothing of Democratic protections.

BURBANK: DeLay was notably effective at concentrating power. He did it in part by tightly controlling committee chairmanships. That helped insure that only legislation DeLay and other GOP leaders supported made it to the floor for a vote. He's credited with getting some tough pieces of legislation through the House with just enough votes to pass.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): He's been a real leader and it's sad that he's chosen to go.

BURBANK: That's Ohio Republican John Boehner, who replaced DeLay as majority leader. But Boehner was not one of DeLay's inner circle, and there were many Republicans, especially moderates, who felt DeLay's wrath when they failed to march as ordered. So far, during his time as leader, Boehner has been much more open to letting Democrats and dissenting Republicans have input on issues.

James Thurber, who teaches political science at American University, says Boehner found it necessary to do some serious bridge rebuilding.

Professor JAMES THURBER (Professor and Director, Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, American University): We had extreme partisanships, lack of comity and civility under Tom DeLay, between the two parties, and it's going to take some time to bring that back.

BURBANK: DeLay tended to use more sticks than carrots when looking to motivate members of his party, but he did have one big carrot: money. Through close connections with lobbyists, including the now infamous Jack Abramoff, who is awaiting sentencing on federal corruption charges, DeLay was able to raise unprecedented amounts in campaign funds he then directed towards those who were loyal to him.

Prof. THURBER: He had strong links with K Street, or the lobbyists in Washington D.C., that funneled money into these leadership PACs and helped these chairs and helped the party.

BURBANK: Ultimately, though, those connections were DeLay's undoing.

Three years ago, questions began to surface about money being moved through a political action committee DeLay was associated with in Texas. The operation benefited candidates for the State Legislature in Texas, who eventually redrew that state's political map. This, in turn, enabled DeLay to add five new Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004; but it also led to an indictment in 2005, which forced DeLay to step down from the position of majority leader. DeLay continues to insist the indictment was politically motivated, but the pending charges and trial have been complicated by his association with Abramoff, who's now cooperating with federal prosecutors in a continuing investigation of influence peddling in Congress.

All these probes left DeLay looking vulnerable in his bid for reelection and, two months ago, he announced he was retiring. DeLay has also announced he is relocating to Virginia. That's fueled speculation he'll go to work for a lobbying firm, meaning that Tom DeLay, the lobbyist, could soon be back on Capitol Hill with all his friends and foes.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Luke Burbank
Luke Burbank is kind of amazed that NPR is letting him co-host its new morning show, The Bryant Park Project, NPR's new morning news show launched on October 1, 2007.