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Historic parallels as DeLay's woes deepen

From Jim Wright to Newt Gingrich, powerful House leaders have become targets of opposition.

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The gap between what House Republicans say on the record about their embattled leader Tom DeLay and what they say in private is wide but narrowing.

In public, most Republicans say that what's driving the criticism of the House majority leader is politics, not ethics. The Democratic "hit machine" is pouring millions into a campaign to oust the most powerful Republican in Congress. But the real target is the Republican majority and its agenda.

But in private, some senior leaders are saying it's only a matter of time before the most powerful Republican in Congress is forced from office. "Democrats should save their money. Why murder someone who is committing suicide?" said a senior GOP lawmaker, on condition of anonymity.

Over the weekend, such guarded views began to emerge into the public sphere. Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut became the first Republican lawmaker to call openly for DeLay's ouster. On ABC's "This Week," GOP Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, another Republican expecting a tough race in 2006, said that DeLay needs to "lay out what he did and why."

It's a battle with historic parallels in an institution where it is not unusual for partisan power struggles to play out as controversies over ethics - with a powerful leader as target. Democrats' focus on DeLay, for example, mirrors the GOP campaign to topple Speaker Jim Wright (D), but on a much wider scale. Minority Republicans, led by Rep. Newt Gingrich, choreographed a "gathering storm" in the media around Mr. Wright, whose fall from power in 1989 was triggered by a book deal with the Teamsters Union. Mr. Gingrich made a special effort to draw good-government groups, such as Common Cause, to the fight.

In recent weeks, Democrats and activists who helped fund the 2004 presidential campaign have created their own "good government" coalitions to target DeLay. Billionaire George Soros's Open Society Institute has contributed some $2.5 million to ethics coalition groups.

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