Republicans seek new House leader as DeLay forced to quit

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Republicans begin the quest this week for a new leader in the House of Representatives, following the decision of Tom DeLay to step down from the post in the wake of the scandal involving the disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Mr DeLay's position had already been undermined by two indictments for campaign fundraising irregularities in his home state of Texas. By late last week, however, it had become untenable after Mr Abramoff struck a plea bargain with federal prosecutors admitting tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery.

Mr DeLay has steadfastly denied all wrongdoing and says he has no plans to relinquish his seat, covering the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. But he has been deeply tarred by his long-standing and close ties with the Republican lobbyist, who made large contributions to DeLay political campaigns and advocacy groups, and bankrolled a 2000 golfing trip to Scotland by the congressman.

The Abramoff affair, which has led to an FBI investigation into some 20 members of Congress and their aides, has sent shock waves through Capitol Hill. Though Democrats are also involved, it primarily involves Republicans, and threatens to damage the party at November's mid-term elections, jeopardising its majorities in House and Senate. Although it does not directly involve the White House, the scandal has contributed to the long slide in President George Bush's popularity, hardening the impression that the party he leads has become institutionally corrupt in the decade since it regained control of Congress at the 1994 mid-term elections.

Ever since then, the arch-conservative Mr DeLay has been a potent instrument of that power, first as House majority whip, the third-ranking post, and since 2002 as majority leader, second in the hierarchy behind only the Speaker. He imposed a rigid discipline, driving through Mr Bush's agenda despite a Republican majority of two dozen or less.

His importance has only been underlined by the legislative setbacks suffered by Republicans after he was forced to step down on a temporary basis in September by the indictments in Texas. House Republicans have split on immigration, tax cuts and other issues.

Contenders to replace him include Roy Blunt, the Missouri congressman who has held the job on an interim basis for the past four months, and John Boehner of Ohio. Whatever the outcome, moderate Republicans - largely muzzled during the DeLay era - are likely to become more assertive under a new leadership.

* Samuel Alito, the US Supreme Court nominee, begins his Senate confirmation hearing today, facing questions on matters from civil liberties and presidential war powers to his own opposition to abortion. With the direction of the nation's highest court at stake, lawmakers in both parties on the Senate Judiciary Committee are expected to challenge the President's nominee on his legal record and beliefs. Yet barring an unforeseen bombshell or poor performance, the Republican-led Senate is expected later this month to confirm Judge Alito, a federal appeals judge since 1990.