As majority whip, it's DeLay's job to maintain an hour-by-hour sense of where Republicans are on issues that are headed to the House floor, enforcing party discipline, rounding up votes on hotly contested bills and wheeling, dealing and trading favors to win over strays. He controls the 221-strong GOP caucus through a network of fifteen senior Republicans in the whip organization, aided by his deputy, Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, who for the past year has also served as Bush's liaison to Congress. The assistant whips, in turn, manage more than sixty other members, organized on a regional basis. "He's the Energizer Whip," says Bill Paxon, a close DeLay ally who retired from Congress in 1999. "His whip organization has hundreds of lines of communication to groups downtown and around the country. If you go to a whip meeting, as soon as DeLay asks for help, people in those meetings start raising their hands and phones start ringing." Most of those phones ring in the offices of K Street lobbyists, like Paxon's current one at the powerhouse firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.
Impregnable in his 22nd District, which stretches from southwest Houston into Fort Bend and Brazoria counties, DeLay has steadily climbed the rungs of power in the House, repeatedly clashing with and challenging Gingrich for primacy. He was elected whip in 1994, running against Representative Bob Walker of Pennsylvania, the candidate handpicked by Newt. "They needed a Rottweiler," says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "And there aren't many members who have that kind of toughness." Recognizing that he is too divisive a figure to become Speaker of the House, Delay has instead decided to remain in the background and act as kingmaker. Three years after becoming whip, he helped organize an ill-fated conspiracy that almost toppled Gingrich in 1997, aiming to replace him as Speaker with Paxon. Finally, when Gingrich collapsed in 1998, DeLay engineered the elevation of his chief deputy whip, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who had managed his 1994 campaign for majority whip, as Speaker of the House. Immediately afterward, in the starkest display of his newfound power, DeLay hammered the House Republicans into line over the impeachment of President Clinton.
Second, and intimately connected to his power as whip, is DeLay's unrivaled ability to mobilize campaign cash and outside special interests to back the Republican agenda. Money is what makes DeLay's political machines inside and outside the House mesh. In the mid-1990s, DeLay took over as the GOP's liaison to K Street, and he charged into that task with zest. Wielding Republican control of Congress like a club, he not only began setting virtual quotas on PACs and other campaign contributions to the Republican side but kept running totals of corporate PACs and law firms that gave money to Democrats, threatening to stall their priorities if they didn't tilt far enough toward the GOP.
For the past several years, DeLay, Blunt and a couple of dozen major players from K Street have held regular Wednesday get-togethers, including Paxon, Rusbuldt and lobbyists from the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the National Restaurant Association, the American Trucking Associations and lobbyists from several of the key law firms and corporate offices in town. "It's been relatively informal," says Blunt. "It doesn't have a name, and it's not always the same people." Acting as a Kitchen Cabinet, the group would formulate strategy on legislative priorities, then parcel out the heavy lifting to build outside pressure on members of the House, often forming task forces on issues from the military to energy to healthcare. As an example, says Blunt, Mike Baroody of NAM organized about 100 lobbyists to help pass the GOP's $700 billion tax cut last session.
Though DeLay is often painted as a pillar of the Christian right, he is not necessarily a reliable ally on Capitol Hill, compared with, say, majority leader Dick Armey. "DeLay is committed to our issues, but business and tax issues seem much more dear to his heart," says Michael Bowman, vice president for government relations at the Family Research Council. "He's the K Street guy. You don't see us around those tables." DeLay says that his Christian faith was reinvigorated after watching a video by James Dobson, who founded FRC and who leads the Colorado-based Focus on the Family. That video, says DeLay, "turned my life around when I first came to Congress. He brought me back to Christ." Still, on issues like trade and gambling, says Bowman, DeLay always casts his lot with the corporate interests, not the conservative Christian groups.
DeLay's zealotry in courting K Street's lobbyists and campaign donors has, from time to time, gotten him embroiled in controversy. Three years ago he kicked up a storm when he publicly attacked the giant Electronic Industries Association for having the gall to name a conservative Democrat, former Oklahoma Representative Dave McCurdy, to lead the group. DeLay, who wanted Paxon to get the job, called it "an insult to the majority to hire a partisan Democrat." When DeLay threatened to hold up legislation that the association wanted, Democrats and good-government groups cried foul, and the GOP-controlled House ethics committee slapped DeLay with a mild rebuke.
Still, DeLay minces no words in demanding that overcautious lobbyists, who often hedge their political bets by giving to candidates on both sides of the aisle, stick with the Republicans. "We don't like to deal with people who are trying to kill the revolution," he says, referring to Democratic-leaning K Street types. "We know who they are. The word is out."