Standoff Spills to the Hill

Posted May 16, 2003 at 6:29pm

What started as a humorous standoff at a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Okla., mushroomed last week into a serious war of words on Capitol Hill over what national Democrats are now calling “Watergate Revisited.”

To hear Hill Republicans tell it, the more than 50 Democratic state legislators who waited across the Texas border for a week abdicated their duties, deprived the GOP state House majority of a working quorum and killed a redistricting plan supported by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

To hear Hill Democrats tell it, DeLay and other Republicans may have misused federal funds, abused their official powers, interfered with federal law enforcement, imperiled the war on terrorism, and damaged the historic comity of the Texas House in their quest to bring the missing lawmakers back to Austin.

“Squaring Tom DeLay’s conflicting statements about getting federal law enforcement to work for Texas Republicans in a political dispute is difficult,” Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) charged Friday in a fiery press release. “But it raises the type of serious abuse-of-power questions that America hasn’t faced since Richard Nixon and Watergate. What did Tom DeLay know, and when did he know it?”

By the end of the week, Frost and other Democrats had also given DeLay — best known as “The Hammer” — two new monikers. They said he should now be known as “J. Edgar DeLay” after former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who famously spied on private citizens, or “Tom Nixon DeLay.”

Republicans scoffed at the Democratic accusations, saying they were giving DeLay too much credit for a hypothetical conspiracy that never occurred.

“It’s just silliness,” said DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella.

As Democrats in Washington increasingly became aware of how the Texas redistricting plan was developed behind closed doors and with few public hearings, they began to see the Texas standoff — and DeLay’s promotion of the use of federal law-enforcement officials to arrest the missing Texas Democrats — as a symbol of what many Democrats on Capitol Hill see as DeLay’s years of heavy-handed and secretive political tactics.

“They’re opening themselves up to this,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said of the controversy over the Texas redistricting plan. “Nobody up here started this fight.”

But Grella said Democrats were merely covering for their Texas compatriots who had shirked their responsibility to their constituents.

“They just refuse to respond to the fact that it’s the [Texas] Legislature’s responsibility to draw these lines,” Grella said.

In devising the redistricting plan, which would have altered a three-judge-panel map completed after the 2000 Census, DeLay took two days off during the week of May 5, missing 15 House floor votes on May 7 and 8, to personally lobby Texas Republican state House Members on the redistricting plan. The plan was not finalized or released until May 11 — one day before the Texas House was scheduled to vote on the proposal that could have removed seven Congressional Democrats from their seats.

“There are a lot of similarities between what they were rebelling against down there and what’s going on up here” claimed one senior House Democratic aide. “DeLay has successfully exported to Texas exactly the type of partisan and hardline strategy that he’s used up here in the House for a long time.”

Grella responded: “They are at once engaging in name-calling and character assassination, but in the same breath lamenting the dissipation of bipartisanship. That’s a little disingenuous, don’t you think?”

Though the partisan vitriol was present in Washington almost from the beginning of the standoff, Democrats did not begin leveling any serious allegations against DeLay and other Texas Republicans until the Fort Worth Star-Telegram began reporting midweek on the use of federal law-enforcement resources in tracking down the so-called “Killer Ds.”

“It’s very reminiscent of Watergate,” said Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas). “It brought our government down.”

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) joined several other Congressional Texas Democrats on May 15 in calling for the Department of Homeland Security to look into whether federal resources were misused when the Texas Department of Public Safety used a Homeland Security aviation tracking facility in California to help them locate a private plane owned by former Texas Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney. Republicans believed Laney would lead them to the missing Democratic lawmakers, and that is precisely how they were found in Ardmore.

But Edwards and other Democrats say the damage has already been done to the new department’s reputation and its ability to engender the public’s trust.

“We created the Department of Homeland Security to track down terrorists, not law-abiding citizens,” said Turner, who serves as ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee. “We have to ensure that our federal war on terror is not used for improper purposes.”

Another Texas Democrat, state Rep. Richard Raymond, said he was told by state House Republicans who met with DeLay the week of May 5 that DeLay bragged about quashing a voting-rights complaint that Raymond sent to the Justice Department earlier in the week.

According to Raymond, Republican legislators were told the complaint would be dismissed in time for their scheduled May 12 vote on the redistricting plan. (Raymond withdrew his complaint from the Justice Department and has decided to file a federal voting-rights suit in court instead.)

“It would, in fact, be obstruction of justice if it were true,” charged Raymond. “And it would be an indictable offense.”

Grella disputed Raymond’s accusations, saying, “That is completely bogus because we only contacted the Justice Department about this after he withdrew his complaint.”

Democrats said they believe that the allegations are so serious that, if proven true, the entire nation will be inflamed, in the same way they were when President Richard Nixon was implicated in a Republican plan to using federal resources to wiretap the Democratic campaign office in the Watergate Hotel.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans started to join us,” said Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas). “Keep in mind, it was Republicans who brought Richard Nixon down.”

Grella shot back: “It’s understandable why some Democrats in desperation are getting overheated on this. But I don’t believe how ridiculous they sound. They’re in need of a little perspective on this.”