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Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Loneliest Republican

Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), the only Republican in Congress to call for Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to resign as House majority leader, walked in late to a committee meeting yesterday and got the cold shoulder from a longtime colleague, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). When Burton barely acknowledged Shays, Shays put a hand on Burton's and inquired, "Dan, is everything okay?"

"Well," Burton replied, shaking his head, "I'm really not happy with what you did."

Shays leaned over. "Dan," he said, "I've been speaking out for a long time and nobody seems to be listening." The conversation ended quickly.

Shays seized a prominent role in the DeLay ethics controversy Saturday when he told constituents that the leader is "an absolute embarrassment to me and to the Republican Party." To DeLay's foes, Shays is a brave truth-teller; to DeLay's defenders -- and that includes the most powerful Republicans in Congress -- Shays is a self-righteous grandstander.

It is not a new position for Shays, who was denied the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Committee because of his role championing campaign finance reform. His position as an outspoken centrist (he opposed President Bill Clinton's impeachment) has severed him from party leaders. And this has left him free to speak his mind, which is just what he did in a brief interview between appointments.

"I think he's hurting the party because he's just gone too far too often," Shays said of DeLay. "He doesn't know the bounds of what's appropriate. He goes well beyond them. It's not that he may have broken the law, it's that he has continually pushed what is proper conduct to the very edge, and it's the accumulation of this."

The words are spoken softly and gently, but they are tough. If Shays is feeling lonely in his criticism of DeLay -- no other Republican elected to federal office has joined his call for resignation -- he is not backing down. "I believe my party in 10 years has become as arrogant as the Democratic Party became in 30 to 40 years," he continued, from a ground-floor office in the Rayburn building. "It's been a real surprise to me that the adage 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,' I really believe that has happened."

It's yet unknown whether Shays's rebellion remains the act of one gadfly or becomes the sort of movement that occurred after John B. Anderson became the first Republican in Congress in 1974 to call for President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. That nobody in the party has yet joined Shays reflects the enormous power and loyalty DeLay commands. A few colleagues have given Shays private encouragement, but a similar number have avoided eye contact with him.

Still, there were signs of turmoil at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans yesterday morning. Rep. Joel Hefley (Colo.), deposed as ethics committee chairman after the committee criticized DeLay, spoke about how badly the ethics quandary was handled. Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.) warned the caucus that the leadership had become arrogant.

Shays, while exempting House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) from his criticism, says he is "certain" that one of two things will happen: "We will either deal with our arrogance or we will lose our position of authority."

Others might be afraid to say that. But Shays, after 17 years of quarrels with party leaders, has no such worries. "I'm never going to be speaker of the House," he said. "Once you accept that, it gives you freedom."

The congressman says he's not trying to lead a movement. "People say if you go after the king, you've got to make sure the king is gone," he observed. "I'm not going after the king. I'm not trying to get rid of him. I'm just telling people what I think."

He's not shy about that. At a luncheon for a group of government workers, Shays fielded questions for 20 minutes and freely criticized the GOP House leadership over its handling of a Medicare vote, and the Bush administration over Iraq, environmental issues and oil drilling. "I don't think we've done proper oversight of this administration," said Shays, who grabbed a tuna sandwich to eat on his way to vote.

Shays may be at peace with his maverick role, but he appeared badly in need of sleep when he arrived at the Government Reform Committee. An amendment was introduced on Alaskan mail delivery; Shays yawned. The chairman discusses energy legislation; Shays yawned. The ranking Democrat proposes an amendment; Shays yawned. The amendment passed; Shays yawned, took off his glasses and rubbed his temple.

Without the chairmanship that seniority would have given him, Shays, as vice chairman, settles for turns with the gavel when his friend the chairman, Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), leaves the room. "You get the big chair," Davis told Shays at the end of the hearing, leaving his understudy to record last-minute votes. Shays was soon presiding over an almost empty room.

"Okay, we're going to adjourn," he said, and then he realized he was missing something. "I don't have a gavel," he announced. He used a coaster instead.

Dana Milbank
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page A05
The Washington Post


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