'I don't think it changes anything,' says Steny Hoyer

Democrats reacted with a mix of surprise and satisfaction yesterday that their arch-nemesis Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) intends to resign from Congress, maintaining that the unexpected announcement would not derail their election-year plans to run against Republicans’ “culture of corruption.”

“I don’t think it changes anything,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “We have run against a culture of corruption. ... Tom DeLay was a practitioner of that, but he was not what we were running against.”

DeLay was dogged by allegations of ethical misconduct in recent years. The ethics committee rebuked him three times before bipartisan bickering rendered it inactive. He was indicted by a Texas grand jury on money-laundering charges. Last week his former deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy in a plea deal, the second former DeLay aide now cooperating with federal investigators. Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom DeLay once called one of his “closest and dearest friends,” was sentenced last week to nearly six years in prison.

Those allegations and others have provided ample fodder for Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) devoted an entire website to DeLay. Dubbed DeLay’s House of Scandal, the site mingled stories about his ethical shortcomings with DCCC fundraising pitches.

Last fall, the DCCC created a joint fundraising committee with DeLay’s challenger, former Rep. Nick Lampson. Lampson toured the country, appearing at events in all the major Democratic urban strongholds and raking in funds for himself and the party.

It is unclear whether similar appeals in the future will have the same resonance, but Democrats expressed confidence that losing their favorite whipping boy would not be a setback. Some argued that DeLay’s departure would aid Democrats, providing a tacit admission that they had directed their fire in the right direction.

“It isn’t just about Tom DeLay, although he’s the ringleader. It’s about Republicans in Congress,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). “Every House Republican has been an accomplice to this corruption,” she added, noting that Republicans had failed to investigate DeLay and had often bowed to his pressure on key votes.

As recently as last week, Pelosi sponsored a privileged resolution on the House floor calling for an ethics investigation of Abramoff’s dealings with members of Congress, including DeLay.

Republicans argued that DeLay’s leaving would have little impact on their prospects in November.

“It is an overwhelmingly R district,” said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, noting that President Bush had carried the district with more 60 percent of the vote. “None of this changes the fact that Democrats have yet to present a positive agenda to voters, yet to present a unified position on Iraq, and have leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean, whom the American people don’t trust.”

Collegio said the resignation would not hinder GOP fundraising.

“Our fundraising base remains strong and committed to Republican policies, and I don’t think it will have any effect. We’re already outraising the Democrats.”

Reacting to DeLay’s news, Democrats sounded many of the same notes they did in September, when DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader — that DeLay had left but Republican corruption continues.

“Tom DeLay may be gone, but the delay in real reform continues,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the DCCC, quipped yesterday before fixing his sights on the new majority leader, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“The refusal of the brand-new majority leader of the House Republicans to pass comprehensive ethics and lobbying reform, the power of the special interests, the control the powerful lobbyists continue to hold, tells the American people everything they need to know about Tom DeLay’s departure — that DeLay may be gone but nothing has changed,” he said.

Pelosi chose Bush as her next target. Asked whether Democratic candidates would use DeLay’s name in their upcoming campaigning, Pelosi said she would leave that up to them, “but I do know one name that will figure prominently and that is George Bush,” she said.

Regardless of whether DeLay’s absence will be a help or hindrance, Emanuel wasted no time in sending out a fundraising appeal yesterday afternoon, urging potential donors to “help the DCCC keep up the momentum for change.”

“DeLay’s resignation proves that we’re on track to bring the change so desperately needed in Washington,” he added.