There's a fine bit of understatement on the front page of this morning's Washington Post: Republicans in the House are debating whether they should permanently replace Tom DeLay in favor of "a leadership lineup that is better equipped to deal with the growing corruption scandal."
As a growing number of Republicans are finally beginning to admit, the question isn't whether there's someone "better equipped" to deal with the corruption scandal than DeLay. It's whether there's a single person on the planet who is less equipped to deal with it.
OK, we take that back. Bob Ney might be worse. The Ohio Republican has been implicated, as the corrupt "Representative #1," in court filings by both Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon. DeLay hasn't reached that level of legal jeopardy yet, at least not in the Washington investigation, but it sure seems to be coming: Federal prosecutors didn't want Abramoff's cooperation for nothing, and you don't need seven degrees of separation to find links between the admitted felon of a lobbyist and the displaced House majority leader.
DeLay was forced to step aside from his leadership post when he was indicted in Ronnie Earle's ever-expanding criminal case in Texas. As details of Abramoff's plea agreement emerged this week, Newt Gingrich said it was time for Republicans to decide whether they should make DeLay's temporary absence from the leader's office a permanent one. But even with DeLay on the ropes, Republicans in the House might be wary about putting their names on the line in calling for a challenge to DeLay. Now it appears that they may not have to: "Leadership aides and DeLay allies" tell the Post that they expect DeLay to announce soon that he's relinquishing any claim on his old post.
DeLay's spokesman insists that he's staying on, and it's not as if DeLay wants to leave. But at some point -- a point one might have thought was reached some time ago -- DeLay becomes a liability for the House Republicans he's supposed to be leading. If he can't help them -- if he actually hurts them -- why should they keep moving heaven and earth, as House Speaker Dennis Hastert has, to keep him around? "Sooner or later, self-interest creeps in," Jeff Flake, a Republican representative from Arizona, tells the Los Angeles Times. "Here is the threshold question that my colleagues will be asking themselves: How many would today accept a contribution from Mr. DeLay or ask him to come to their district? That becomes the threshold question, the barometer. That is something Tom DeLay understands."