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Allies Hold Dinner for DeLay

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Conservative groups in Washington say they've sold every seat for tonight's tribute dinner honoring House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The dinner is meant to give DeLay a boost as the House Ethics Committee prepares for a likely investigation. Under scrutiny: overseas trips DeLay took with a lobbyist. That lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, is already facing other government investigations.

SIEGEL: In a few minutes, we'll hear about that dinner and about new ethics guidelines Republicans hope will protect them from future ethics problems. First, Peter Overby looks at Tom DeLay's financial ties to members of the ethics panel and almost every other Republican in the House.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Two of the five Republicans on the House Ethics Committee have already recused themselves from this case. Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Lamar Smith of Texas were in an awkward spot because they had given money to DeLay's legal defense fund. But when it comes to cash flowing the other direction, from DeLay and his personal political action committee to other members, it's hard to find anyone who hasn't received some. All three of the remaining Republicans on the ethics panel are affected, and so are all but four of DeLay's 231 GOP colleagues in the current House. That's according to an analysis done for NPR by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. The data reach back as far as 1989. Most House members were elected over this span, as DeLay was building his reputation as a congressional powerhouse. The analysis shows that Melissa Hart, first elected in 2000, got $15,000 from DeLay's organization. Hart says that, all told, her campaigns have cost about $4 million. She's on the Ethics Committee, and she says it isn't a problem.

Representative MELISSA HART (Republican, Pennsylvania): If anyone would suggest that because someone gave me money that I would do what they tell me or I would be somehow beholden to them, I would suggest that every member of Congress can't vote on anything.

OVERBY: Judy Biggert of Illinois says her contribution from DeLay was small and long ago.

Representative JUDY BIGGERT (Republican, Illinois): And I got a lot more from other people. And I just think that it's a nice thing to do, and I do it, really, to help the party. And I think that's what all of us do, and I think probably what Leader DeLay does, too.

OVERBY: But not all House Republicans agree. One dissenter is Ray LaHood, a six-term veteran from Illinois.

Representative RAY LAHOOD (Republican, Illinois): I think anytime you write a check to somebody, you make an investment. If you write a check to a candidate or to a member, they know you're making an investment in them.

OVERBY: LaHood says the answer for the Ethics Committee is pretty obvious.

Rep. LAHOOD: If there are members of the Ethics Committee that have received contributions from Leader DeLay's political action committee, they should recuse themselves from consideration.

OVERBY: But if they did, who'd be left to serve? It's a short list of possibilities. Fifty Republicans can at least say they got less than a thousand dollars each from DeLay's organization. Frank Wolf of Virginia can say he gave back his $20 contribution, and DeLay never gave at all to Tom Osborne of Nebraska, Joe Schwartz of Michigan or this lawmaker, Todd Platts of Pennsylvania.

Representative TODD PLATTS (Republican, Pennsylvania): My practice for 12-plus years in public office is to only accept contributions from individual contributors, to not accept it from any PAC.

OVERBY: DeLay became a leading practitioner of money politics in the 1980s, as the seniority system was fading away and cash was becoming the avenue to power. Now many lawmakers have so-called leadership PACs like his. Just for comparison, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and her PACs gave money to four of the five Ethics Committee Democrats, roughly half as much as DeLay did on the other side, but then Pelosi hasn't been in the leadership as long. Larry Noble, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, says lawmakers remember where their money comes from.

Mr. LARRY NOBLE (Center for Responsive Politics): And they can't deny, in the end, that that does affect their relationships. You are less likely to go against somebody, especially as they're coming up in the leadership, who supported you in the past. That's just human nature.

OVERBY: Just as it's the nature of politicians to protect their flanks by making as many allies as they can. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Seabrook
Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.
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