Washington (CNSNews.com) - Less than five months before the congressional elections, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Christian conservative from Texas with a reputation for toughness and determination, is setting his sights on increasing the Republicans' six-seat margin in the House.
"My focus is on getting through our agenda and doing my job as whip," DeLay said in an interview with CNSNews.com, downplaying speculation on possible plans to succeed Majority Leader Dick Armey as No. 2 House Republican after his fellow Texan retires in November.
DeLay's agenda primarily calls for appropriating funds to pay for the war on terrorism. It also means getting back to a balanced budget and putting a stop to spending social security.
In addition, he is gearing up for major battles with the Senate over energy, and making last year's tax cuts permanent. Plans to modernize Medicare and provide a prescription drug program for seniors also have a top priority.
To accomplish this, DeLay, 55, a ninth-term member from Sugar Land and the lead vote counter since Republicans won control of the House in 1994, favors a methodical process he calls "growing the vote," a persuasive approach far removed from the tactics that earned him the moniker, "the hammer."
"Growing the vote means it takes a lot more work, but it's bringing people together with the idea that when we get to the floor they want to vote for it," he said.
"The hammer" image is a legacy of the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky days, but DeLay and his colleagues insist it doesn't aptly describe how the whip does business.
"Even though it's cute and it's fun to play with, that has nothing to do with how I operate," he said. "I listen to members, I try to listen with humility. I try to bring members together."
Rep. Mark Foley (R.-Fla.), a self-described moderate and one of 14 members on the deputy whip team, seconded this, saying accounts of DeLay's arm-twisting are grossly overblown.
"I think some of the rap he's gotten is more folk legend," Foley said. "He is strong and he is determined, but he does not run over people."
Neither does DeLay use what members perceive as a strong ideological side to rally support, Foley said.
"If anyone watched after the police officers were killed, they saw the Tom DeLay that we knew very much in our heart was a humble man who cares about people a lot," he said. "That's a side a lot of people don't get to read about or see or hear about."
"He doesn't ever mislead you, making you think he believes in your opinion if he doesn't," added Foley, who predicts the GOP could grow three to five seats in the House in November, thanks in part to DeLay's leadership.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), also a moderate and a leading advocate of campaign finance legislation, said DeLay "will go down truly in history as one of the most effective whips ever to serve in Congress."
DeLay is working with a margin that is down from 23 members in the 1990s to six today, "and yet we've gotten through every difficult bill that we've attempted," Shays said.
"He does it with the reputation of being 'the hammer,' but the irony is he succeeds because he just tries to understand the objections and deal with them. So he does it through reason rather than through his power," he said.
Shays, one of four Republicans to vote against all four articles of impeachment in 1998, said DeLay found ways to work with him during the crisis, despite their differences.
"He thinks the Republican Party is very much a conservative party and he refers to the base of the party as being different to what I would call the base. But I've always found him to be very straightforward. I've always found him to be willing to listen and I've always found him to try to deal with your objections."
Rep. Eric Cantor, (R-Va.) said: "Tom DeLay has provided unsurpassed common sense conservative leadership in the House, and he is one of the most effective legislators that I've had the pleasure of serving with here."
A Strict Constructionist
A former small business operator, DeLay began his legislative career in 1978, when he became the first Republican to be elected to the Texas House of Representatives by Fort Bend County. In 1984, he was elected to the U.S. House, where he became a leader in the drive to create a governing conservative majority.
Beginning his Washington career during Ronald Reagan's second term, DeLay pushed a conservative agenda that was pro-business and pro-life, and opposed to gun control and undue environmental restrictions.
Despite the Republicans' congressional victory in 1994, DeLay and other conservatives still feel frustrated by a system they say is "Democrat-friendly" and hostile to Republican values of small limited government, lower taxes and a bureaucracy that favors Constitution-based issues.
"I'm a strict constructionist, and there're a lot of things the government does that I don't think the Constitution allows."
DeLay is blunt in his conviction that elected officials should take the lead in matters of morals.
"I think we should set examples and be aggressive in trying to renew our culture. That's not forcing morals down people's throats. But by setting an example, by standing for things that are right and against things that are wrong, you are creating that moral climate," he said.
This philosophy has been much in evidence over the past few months in DeLay's efforts to update the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, a measure that emphasizes the importance of religious institutions and personal faith in moving people from dependence on government to dependence on self.
The 1996 reforms, enacted during a booming economy, cut the number of people receiving assistance by about 50 percent. The welfare bill passed last month by the House would expand work requirements for welfare recipients to 40 hours per week from 30 and allow 16 of those hours to be spent in related activities such as job training or substance abuse treatment.
It would also boost spending on sexual abstinence programs in schools, increase money for childcare and include $300 million to promote marriage.
Critics are skeptical of the 40-hour work requirement and want to give states the power to count more education and training toward the total.
Steven Shafarman, executive director of the Citizen Policies Institute in Washington, said DeLay's welfare reform measures were "neither compassionate nor conservative."
"They are not compassionate toward single mothers, who are the major recipients of welfare, and will cause more children to be neglected and abandoned," he said. "And they are not conservative because they coerce states into policies that governors oppose and impose added burdens on state governments in doing so."
Shafarman, author of "We the People: Healing Our Democracy and Saving Our World," favors a system that would give cash payments of $500 to $600 per person per month to the very poor, and cutting government programs. He would combine that with a plan for universal community service.
"I believe this welfare reform bill that the House has passed is mistaken in many ways and will do real harm to poorer Americans and to our nation as a whole," Shafarman said.
The Democrat-led Senate is likely to pass a less stringent bill than the House. A conference committee would be convened to iron out differences.
DeLay founded a congressional public awareness campaign on neglected and abused children and is an advocate in Congress for children at risk. He was a key sponsor of the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement Act and the Foster Care Reform Act, both of which were signed into law.
DeLay credits his wife, Christine, for her efforts with abused and neglected children.
"She's worked for years to help them make their lives better and to change the system so that it's child friendly and child focused. She's done an incredible job," he said.
DeLay also is working on a bill to overturn the Supreme Court decision on virtual child pornography, and is in consultation with the city of Washington, D.C. to improve its child welfare system.
"We just passed a bill this year that the president signed, reforming their court system, which will go a long way to creating a family court that is child focused," DeLay said.
Supports Coalitions With Moderate Muslims
As a staunch conservative, DeLay is often used by House Democrats to paint the Republican Party as extremist and out-of-touch with mainstream voters. But he's also worked to build bridges with some arguably unexpected constituencies, including moderate Muslims.
Nonetheless, DeLay has also drawn fire for his outspoken religious views.
In April, he was criticized by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State for remarks he made before evangelical Christians in Texas, in which he said "Christianity offers the only viable, reasonable, definitive answer" to fundamental questions on human existence.
Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the comments showed that DeLay lacked appreciation for the "religious pluralism" of the United States.
"People are welcome to believe like me, or they're welcome to believe in their own religion," DeLay responded. "I respect people's right to have their own beliefs and practice their own religion."
In early May, DeLay drew fire for introducing a resolution in the House that strongly supported Israel and condemned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the ongoing Middle East conflict.
Critics said the resolution, which was non-binding, went beyond Congress' traditional solid support for Israel and was designed to rally Jewish voters, a traditional Democratic voting bloc, behind Republicans in November.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman with the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said DeLay's resolution was "one-sided" and motivated by political gain.
"These things are entirely unhelpful in terms of creating peace, stability and justice in the Middle East and they're seen as being motivated by the powerful domestic lobby that works on behalf of the state of Israel," Hooper said.
"They have nothing to do with reality, with justice, with peace, with anything - it has to do with politicians making an effort to please a powerful domestic lobby so that they can get help in getting reelected," he added.
Chris Toensing, editor of Middle East Report, said introducing the resolution despite an appeal by Secretary of State Colin Powell to postpone it was designed to send a signal to Israel that there is a lot of support in official Washington for Israel's invasion of Palestinian areas.
Calling for the vote showed that DeLay is ideologically in tune with the foreign policy analysts who tend to be "aggressively unilateralist" and view Israel's security interests to be no different from America's security interests in the region, Toensing said.
There was also a strong religious motivation to DeLay's resolution, he said.
"DeLay is what should be called a Christian Zionist, that is, he believes that Israel has a right to all of the territory of geographic Palestine because that's prophesied in Scripture," Toensing said.
In a concession to the White House, DeLay and co-sponsor Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) added language that said the resolution "encourages the international community to take action to alleviate the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people."
The House approved the measure 352 to 21, with 29 members voting present. A similar Senate resolution passed 94 to 2.
DeLay said he supports efforts to build coalitions with moderate Muslims, but that a pre-requisite for discussion of a Palestinian state is to get rid of the terrorists. "Right now I don't see that as an option, not under the present circumstances."
If the United States stands strong in its leadership, Muslim extremists will fade and more moderate Muslims will emerge, he said.
"It's in their own self-interest," DeLay added. "Malaysia is a perfect example, where you have a moderate Muslim leader [Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad] that is trying to eliminate the extremists. It's the extremists that we're having the war with, not the Muslims."
DeLay said that, in the not too distant future, the United States will have solidified its leadership in the world in the war on terror and other countries will join U.S. efforts against extremists out to destroy free, democratic societies.
"When you stand strong on your leadership, people will gather round," he concluded.
E-mail a news tip to Lawrence Morahan.
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