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Inside Politics

DeLay apologizes for comment about judges

Political heat rises over ethics questions

From Ted Barrett and Ed Henry
CNN Washington Bureau

Tom DeLay
Justice and Rights
Judiciary (system of justice)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, riding out a political storm over allegations he took trips that were paid for by lobbyists, tried to put to rest another swirling controversy Wednesday: his threats of retribution against judges involved in the Terri Schiavo case.

"I said something in an inartful way and I apologize for it," DeLay told reporters who jammed a conference room in his Capitol office suite. "I'm sorry I said it that way and I shouldn't have said it."

DeLay was referring to a statement he issued the day Schiavo died. "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior," DeLay said, raising the possibility of impeachment proceedings against members of an independent branch of government.

Schiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990. She died March 31 after her feeding tube was removed by a judge's order. Her death put an end to seven years of legal battles between her husband and her parents.

Democrats, members of the judiciary, and even some Republicans criticized DeLay's comments.

But DeLay on Wednesday reaffirmed his belief Congress "would be shirking our Constitutional responsibility" not to do a better job of overseeing judges and monitoring their rulings. He said he has asked the House Judiciary Committee to begin that process.

DeLay declined to answer repeated questions about the trips and the political fallout they are creating.

"I'm not here to discuss the Democrats agenda. I'm here to talk about our agenda," he said.

But other Republican lawmakers are having trouble escaping reporters' questions about the controversy.

One senior Republican lawmaker told CNN, "The Democratic effort to demonize DeLay is having some success. It's getting attention in the public. I don't think there's any denying it's having an effect."

The GOP lawmaker noted that he and other colleagues are for the first time hearing from their constituents, "What about this DeLay guy?"

"Tom DeLay did nothing wrong," Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kansas, declared at a news conference on an energy bill when he was asked about the DeLay. "What this is, is a political smear campaign made by an organization, a political party, that is void of ideas."

For their part, congressional Democrats held a news conference to decry what they say is an "abuse of power" by DeLay and Republicans who the Democrats argue watered down House ethics rules to protect DeLay.

"The ethics committee exercised its responsibility, what was the Republican response? Fire them. Intimidate them," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

The ethics committee, which has not formally organized for the new Congress because committee Democrats are refusing to adopt the new rules they say would help DeLay escape scrutiny, met Wednesday -- once again without a breakthrough.

A vote on a Democratic proposal to create a task force to study rule changes failed, panel members said.

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