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The DeLay volcano rumbles

Other editors say

Republicans need to get a handleon ethics or risk losing seats in 2006

Los Angeles Times

After more than a decade of power in Congress and a full term controlling the White House, the iron discipline of the conservative movement is cracking. The most visible fight is at its intellectual core, but the unrest rising around a congressional scandal is far more potent.

The turmoil at the usually staid foreign policy quarterly National Interest is the better spectator event. The small but influential journal founded by neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol is now housed in and supported by the Nixon Center in Washington. Its leader, Dimitri K. Simes, is a Russia expert with ideas molded during the Cold War. Much of the editorial board, led by neocon thinker Francis Fukuyama (author of The End of History), has decamped to start its own magazine. Even though Fukuyama expressed strong doubts about the Iraq war, he and other former board members are furious that Simes is too much an old-fashioned realist and unenthusiastic about the democracy crusade abroad. This dispute is at least filled with big ideas.

The same is not true of the growing but tightly lidded unrest in Congress over House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

DeLay accuses his critics of using fiction and innuendo to accuse him of a string of ethical breaches. If it's that simple, why would House Republicans, led by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, have bothered to purge the ethics committee of its leader, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., two other GOP legislators and several staffers? Their mistake was to have admonished DeLay for several infractions, including the strong appearance of trading political favors for campaign donations.

Matters have since gotten worse, with the revelation that an Indian tribe and a gambling services company picked up most of the cost of a lavish trip to Britain that DeLay took in 2000 with his wife and several aides. And, it turns out, a foreign agent picked up the tab for DeLay, his wife and two other GOP legislators on a 2001 trip to South Korea. DeLay says he really wants to appear before the ethics committee to explain his actions. He's perfectly safe in offering. There is no functioning committee because Democrats have refused to sign on to watered-down ethics rules passed by the GOP in January.

— Most House Republicans are standing by DeLay, but their nervousness increases as next year's midterm elections approach. The mounting charges, and a criminal investigation involving DeLay in Texas, may threaten the House leader's re-election next year. More important is the fodder that DeLay is providing Democrats, and not just in Texas.

There has been little enthusiasm in either party for vigorous ethics enforcement since 1997 when legislators reprimanded and fined former House Speaker Newt Gingrich an unprecedented &

36;300,000 for fund-raising violations. The DeLay case is forcing the issue. By demolishing the ethics committee rather than getting out in front of the criminal investigations, House leaders weaken the politically vulnerable among their own rank and file.

The split in the intellectual soul of the conservative movement could change long-term thinking. But it's nothing compared with the volcano that will ensue if Republicans lose seats in 2006 because of DeLay.