Republicans split, but stand by their man
The political frenzy on Capitol Hill surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's ethics is just the latest issue splintering Congressional Republicans.
They may have a majority, but conservative and moderate Republicans are hardly united on a range of domestic priorities from Social Security to stem cell research.
Front-page stories this week questioned campaign payments to DeLay's wife and daughter, and his lobbyist-financed trips overseas. The allegations come after two of DeLay's top aides were indicted in Texas in September for illegally raising political funds from corporations.
But the real political problem, as a Wall Street Journal editorial stated recently, is the perception that "Mr. DeLay, who rode to power in 1994 on a wave of revulsion at the everyday ways of big government, has become the living exemplar of some of its worst habits."
Where does this leave DeLay's future? John Fund, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal's Opinionjournal.com, predicted on Inside Politics Monday that the House Ethics Committee will probably announce an investigation by the end of the month.
"That is a judicious way of handling these charges, rather than having them played out on television, where everything gets confused and the trivial gets mixed in with other stuff that is legitimate," Fund said.
One Republican -- Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut -- has boldly broken ranks and called for DeLay to step down. "I think it's been harmful to the Republican Conference, a conference that ran on the highest ethical standards. And I think it's also harmful for Republicans who are up for reelection," Shays said.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, went so far as to call on DeLay to "come forward and lay out what he did and why he did it and let the people then judge for themselves."
Still, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, next in line in the GOP Leadership under DeLay, told me on Inside Politics that Republicans are standing by their man.
"Tom DeLay is an effective leader," Blunt said, "The members understand that. I think they have a lot of appreciation for that. And right now they're sticking with him."
None of this is the kind of attention Republicans want, as Democrats separately try to make the case that Republican leaders are over-reaching on issues like Social Security and judicial nominations.
Republicans already face an uphill battle persuading the public that personal accounts are necessary for Social Security reform. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee says he agrees with President Bush that private accounts must be a part of any plan.
But this raises red flags for fiscal conservatives since private accounts would swell the national debt if they are not accompanied by benefit cuts or higher taxes. And, despite President Bush's campaign to sell them, polls show the public is not sold.
Republicans also are split on a different domestic front: stem cell research. Easing restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has become a top priority for moderate Republicans like Representative Mike Castle of Delaware and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
They are sponsoring legislation to modify President Bush's 2001 policy, which restricted support to research on existing embryonic stem cell lines.
According to CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider, "Moderate Republicans...are the swing voters whose support must be bargained for and what they want is clear: more funding for embryonic stem cell research." But on the other end of the political spectrum, conservative Republicans remain steadfast in their opposition to stem cell research.
Dana Reeve, the widow of actor Christopher Reeve, has a more personal interest in stem cell research. She was on Capitol Hill Tuesday urging lawmakers to support the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act.
"It's important to move forward in an ethical way, in the way that many other countries are already doing," Reeve told me. "We need not fall behind in this area. The humanitarian thing to do would be to move forward."
Reeve said she believes President Bush shares her goal of wanting to "pursue medical science in the most ethical possible way." But it remains to be seen if the president will modify his views.
Meanwhile, as Republicans sort out their own differences, President Bush's agenda remains on the line.Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.