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Inside Politics

House speaker defends DeLay

Hastert says Democrats blocking panel from clearing colleague

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

House of Representatives
Tom DeLay
Dennis Hastert

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Thursday that he fully supports his embattled Majority Leader Tom DeLay and will do so until it's proven he violated the chamber's rules by accepting trips from lobbyists.

In an off-camera interview with CNN, Hastert also accused Democrats of fanning the flames while at the same time blocking the House ethics committee from formally organizing because it might clear Delay of possible ethical violations.

Hastert didn't hesitate when asked if DeLay has his "100 percent support."

"Mr. DeLay does, right. Until it's proven he's actually done something that's broken the rules and discredited himself and this Congress," the Illinois Republican said as he walked from the House floor to his office.

Three of DeLay's associates face trial in Texas on charges they illegally raised money from corporations for that state's 2002 legislative elections.

DeLay, the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, also may be a target of that probe. He has accused the prosecutor of partisanship.

Media reports also surfaced recently about payments by DeLay's political action and campaign committees to his wife and daughter and the Republican's 1997 trip to Moscow underwritten by business interests lobbying in support of the Russian government.

DeLay has denied any wrongdoing, blaming Democrats and "the liberal media" for the controversy. (Full story)

But one GOP colleague, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, has said DeLay should give up his leadership post to keep ethical questions from bogging down Republican candidates in 2006.

Hastert acknowledged the controversy has potentially negative political ramifications for DeLay.

"You have to remember where all this dust is coming from," Hastert said. "There is a political advantage to the opposition to have this happen."

Hastert defended recent changes to House ethics rules as "reasonable" and "guaranteed in the Constitution." He said Democrats -- who say they are furious over the changes -- are benefiting politically from the ethics stalemate.

"The position right now for the opposition is that if they don't do anything they have a win-win situation," he said. "None of their people go before the ethics committee, and they can dangle this thing [the Delay matter] out."

The new rules require of a majority of the ethics panel -- which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats -- to vote to launch a formal investigation.

Under the previous rules, a probe would be launched if the committee was deadlocked for more than 45 days. The House ethics committee has admonished DeLay three times in the past. (Full story)

Asked if he would use his authority to break the committee stalemate, Hastert said he prefers a "hands-off approach." "But I would hope they can get this settled," he said. "If not, we'll have to do something else."

A spokesman for the speaker declined to elaborate what that option might be.

Appearing before newspaper editors Thursday, President Bush also offered what appeared to be a vote of confidence for DeLay, noting that his fellow Texan has said he would welcome a review by the ethics committee.

"I'm looking forward to working with Tom," Bush said.

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