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Former Republican US House Leader Steps Aside

The former Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, has announced he is stepping aside, paving the way for a new leadership election in that chamber of Congress. Mr. DeLay is fighting criminal charges in his home state of Texas, and has also been implicated in a widening probe of corruption involving a former top Washington lobbyist and members of Congress.

Mr. DeLay was forced to temporarily relinquish his post last year, after he was indicted in Texas on charges of violating campaign finance laws.

House Republicans initially rallied around him, predicting that he would be cleared of wrongdoing, and be able to return to his position.

Congressman DeLay continued to maintain is innocence, accusing a Texas state prosecutor, who is also a Democrat, of waging a politically-motivated campaign to destroy him.

However, as the legal process in Texas dragged on, and with the prospect of Mr. DeLay's trial early in the new year, support weakened.

At the same time, Mr. DeLay is a key figure in the federal corruption probe into the activities of former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion charges. The federal investigation could implicate high-ranking Congressional leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

House Republicans are increasingly nervous about the impact of Mr. DeLay's problems and the lobbying scandal on public attitudes ahead of legislative elections in November, and they circulated a petition calling for a new leadership election.

In recent days, a growing number of House Republicans had begun to call for Mr. DeLay to step down permanently, citing potential damage to Republican efforts to maintain control of Congress.

In a letter to House colleagues Saturday, Mr. DeLay acknowledged their concerns, saying the job of majority leader and the mandate of the Republican majority are too important to be "hamstrung" (paralyzed), and that a new leader should be elected as soon as possible.

In a separate letter to the Republican House Speaker, Dennis Hastert, Mr. DeLay says he will run for re-election to his House seat in Texas, although he faces challenges from other Republicans, as well as one Democrat, and vows to continue to work to clear his name of what he calls baseless charges.

Charges against Mr. DeLay in Texas involve the question of corporate financial donations to candidates for the state legislature in 2002, and allegations the lawmaker took part in a scheme to funnel money through the Republican National Committee back to Texas. House Republican rules required Mr. DeLay to temporarily give up his leadership post when he was indicted.

As majority leader, Congressman DeLay was key to President Bush's efforts to push through his legislative agenda in the House of Representatives. He was often referred to as "The Hammer."

A brief White House statement Saturday said President Bush respects Congressman DeLay's decision to put the interests of the American people and the House of Representatives and the Republican Party first.

However, Mr. DeLay was also a primary target of allegations from opposition Democrats that Republicans have allowed what they call a "culture of corruption" in Congress.

The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, said Mr. DeLay's departure from the leadership picture would not be sufficient to address what she called pervasive corruption he had helped to engineer.

Congressman DeLay had also been admonished on three separate occasions by the bipartisan House Ethics Committee. In his letter to House Republicans, he says he always acted in "an ethical manner."

Mr. DeLay's departure from the leadership scenario opens the way for what is likely to be an intense competition among House Republicans to take his place.

Congressman Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, who has acted as temporary leader, has given strong indications he will seek the leadership position.

But he is likely to face strong challenges from conservative Republicans increasingly dissatisfied with the way things have been going in the House, and worried about public opinion polls indicating damage from the DeLay and Abramoff issues.

The House is due to reconvene after a long holiday break at the end of January, and the Republican leadership election is expected to take place very soon after.