WASHINGTON -- Democrats demanded Thursday that Tom DeLay resign as U.S. House majority leader, claiming that a series of ethics reprimands reveals a pattern of corruption that renders the Texan unfit for a position of leadership.
"Mr. DeLay has proven himself to be ethically unfit to lead the party," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, DeLay's Democratic counterpart. "The record has demonstrated that he will abuse power whenever he deems necessary."
Five government watchdog groups -- representing the left, center and right of the political spectrum -- also asked DeLay to step aside Thursday, one day after the House ethics committee rebuked the Sugar Land Republican for the second time in a week and the third time since 1999.
"Three strikes and you're out," said Rep. Chris Bell, a one-term Houston Democrat whose complaint resulted in the latest ethics committee rebuke.
Republicans brushed aside the resignation demands and countered by assailing Democrats for launching "insipid attacks" amounting to nothing more than a distracting partisan witch hunt.
"The Democrat leadership is desperate," said Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif. and House Republican Conference secretary. "They've fueled a conspiracy that has done nothing but thwart the ethics process and undermine the integrity of the House."
"Democrats have been scheming against Tom DeLay since the 108th Congress began," said Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio and chairwoman of the conference. "And when they finally found a political hatchet man with nothing to lose, they unleashed their baseless attacks."
Though striking even by election-year standards, the animosity on display Thursday underscored the deep feelings inspired by DeLay, whose vigorous fund-raising and strong-arm legislative tactics have made him the most powerful member of the House, if not the entire Congress.
Every House Democrat holding a party leadership position stood before the cameras Thursday to demand that DeLay step down. Every Republican leader issued a statement of support for DeLay -- many continuing his gambit of characterizing the rebuke as a "dismissal" of Bell's charges.
"The ethics committee made the right decision to dismiss," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "Tom DeLay is a good man. He fights hard for what he believes, but he has never put personal interests ahead of the best interests of the country."
The ethics committee, however, characterized its letter to DeLay as a reprimand -- its mildest form of punishment, but still a punishment. Dismissing a complaint requires a majority vote of the committee's five Democrats and five Republicans.
The committee rebuked DeLay for giving the appearance of linking political contributions to legislative action when he met with Westar Energy executives who were seeking a special exemption in the 2002 energy bill. The meeting took place during a golfing fund-raiser after Westar contributed $25,000 to a political action committee tied to DeLay.
DeLay also was faulted for improperly involving a federal agency in last year's partisan struggle over redistricting in the Texas Legislature.
The committee deferred action on a third Bell charge -- that DeLay violated Texas election laws in 2002 -- pending the outcome of a Travis County grand jury investigation. Last month, the grand jury indicted three DeLay associates, as well as Westar and seven other corporations, for allegedly violating a ban on using business money for electioneering.
Some of the disputed money helped elect a GOP-controlled Texas House in 2002, allowing Republicans to draw congressional districts designed to oust up to six Democratic incumbents.
Pelosi said the indictments and the ethics rebuke raised questions about the legitimacy of this November's elections.
"What the DeLay forces did there was to give a criminal basis to the reapportionment in Texas and, therefore, Texas representation in the Congress of the United States," Pelosi said. "And now members will come to Congress not on a legitimate basis, but on a criminal basis."