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Originally published Wednesday, April 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Stench of DeLay clings to two Washington congressmen

Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas is the Newt Gingrich of the new century, a man so pivotal to Republican power that he can't be sacrificed...

Special to The Times

Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas is the Newt Gingrich of the new century, a man so pivotal to Republican power that he can't be sacrificed, yet also a man under such a cloud that he threatens to damage his colleagues.

Caught in the middle, for different reasons, are Washington Reps. Doc Hastings of Pasco and Dave Reichert of Auburn. Hastings is a veteran of the 1995 "Gingrich revolution." Reichert is a freshman.

DeLay is House majority leader but he overshadows Speaker Dennis Hastert. DeLay's fund-raising muscle and ability to keep colleagues in line earned him the nickname "The Hammer." Subtle he is not.

DeLay's vocal role in the Terri Schiavo affair, in which he threatens to punish judges who don't rule his way, is the least of his problems. Several aides have been indicted in Texas, charged with illegal fund raising. DeLay also faces accusations of accepting foreign trips financed by lobbyists, including the seamy Jack Abramoff, who is under investigation on charges of influence peddling and corruption.

Hastings will be in the middle of any House action on DeLay, as the new chairman of the House Ethics Committee, promoted to that job in a controversial maneuver by Republican leaders.

The ethics committee voted unanimously in 2004 to admonish DeLay on three separate instances of inappropriate conduct. In February, the leadership removed Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., from the committee chairmanship and installed Hastings, second in seniority and a staunch backer of the leadership. Two other Republicans were replaced with DeLay allies, firming the leadership's lock on the committee's five Republicans. The committee also has five Democrats, the only House committee required to have equal membership.

Hastings has been unable to organize the committee, because Democrats are protesting new rules pushed by the Republicans and have refused to meet.

As chairman of the ethics committee, Hastings will be forced at some point to choose between the leadership and his responsibility to the integrity of Congress. For someone who has put his congressional career in the hands of the leadership — and advanced accordingly — it will be a difficult decision.

Seemingly, Hastings has some running room. He won his last election with 62 percent of the vote. His voting record — uniformly conservative — fits a district centered on agriculture and Hanford. Democrats would need to come up with someone in the mold of former Rep. Mike McCormack to beat Hastings. McCormack was Mr. Hanford and voted a conservative Democratic line.

Hastings cannot afford, even with his margins, to appear to defer to DeLay, because DeLay is taking a public drubbing that is thoroughly deserved and likely to get even nastier as more revelations appear.

Congressmen more powerful than Hastings have been humbled in the eastern areas of Washington and Oregon. House Speaker Tom Foley was famously ejected by George Nethercutt, and in 1980 Oregon Rep. Al Ullman, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, was dumped by Denny Smith.

In both cases, centrist Democrats were ousted in districts moving rightward, but the defeats of Foley and Ullman serve to remind that rural Northwesterners don't cotton to their congressional representatives getting too cozy with congressional power brokers, particularly those under suspicion.

Reichert faces a different quandary, as he must determine how close to get to the DeLay organization and how independent he can be and still get along in the House.

Much publicity was given to Reichert's vote against DeLay's "Terri Schiavo bill." But the same news article reporting Reichert's apostasy noted he was in attendance at a fund-raiser for himself and some other vulnerable GOP congressmen — hosted by Tom DeLay.

Despite the furor, the Schiavo vote isn't critical. The votes that count are for the GOP pro-business agenda, and on that score Reichert backed both of the major bills that have come before the House: a job-training bill and reform of class-action lawsuits.

Reichert doesn't have Hastings' benefit of a solidly Republican district — he is vulnerable in 2006. That means he needs DeLay's muscle to raise money but he doesn't need the odor of DeLay's ethical lapses.

Tom DeLay has made a career of preaching morals and trampling ethics, and this seeming contradiction is due for a reckoning. Its timing and manner could also influence a couple of congressional elections in Washington state in 2006.

A correction: Two weeks ago, I said federal spending post-9/11 on Iraq and terrorism equals half what we spent (in 2005 dollars) on World War II. The correct comparison is with World War I.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

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