WASHINGTON - The embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, increasingly under fire for what critics describe as ethical lapses and political overreach, offered a rare apology yesterday for "inartful" remarks criticizing federal judges.
DeLay's comments in the wake of the death of Terri Schiavo - in which he suggested that judges "should answer for their behavior" - has set off a barrage of criticism. Democrats have called for him to step down from his leadership position, and Republicans have urged him to make a full accounting of his actions.
In his weekly meeting with reporters, DeLay conceded that his rhetoric had been overheated after the death of Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose parents fought unsuccessfully in the federal courts to keep her feeding tube attached.
"Sometimes I get a little more passionate, and particularly during the moment and the day that Terri Schiavo was starved to death, emotions were flowing," DeLay said. "I probably said - I did, I didn't probably - I said something in an inartful way and I shouldn't have said it that way, and I apologize for saying it that way."
On March 31, the day of Schiavo's death, DeLay denounced federal judges who failed to halt her death as "arrogant, out-of-control, and unaccountable."
"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today," DeLay said. "Today we grieve, we pray, and we hope to God this fate never befalls another."
DeLay continued to criticize federal judges last week, telling a conference of conservative activists that recent court decisions "are not examples of a mature society, but of a judiciary run amok."
"The response of the legislative branch has mostly been to complain," DeLay continued. "There is another way, ladies and gentlemen, and that is to reassert our constitutional authority over the courts."
DeLay is facing criticism on two fronts - first, for being too partisan and inappropriately fomenting anger at federal judges, and second, for alleged ethical improprieties, including accepting foreign travel from lobbyists and putting family members on his campaign payroll.
DeLay is the No. 2 leader of the House of Representatives, a position to which he is elected by fellow Republicans, who have stood with him even though he has been rebuked three times by the House Ethics Committee. As the furor grew over the weekend, several prominent Republicans for the first time publicly called for DeLay to respond to the charges.
So far, DeLay's strategy is to try to deflect criticism of him and focus it instead on Republicans' legislative progress. In his meeting with reporters, DeLay declined to answer any questions about his ethical problems, saying that was part of the Democratic agenda.
"I'm not here to discuss the Democrats' agenda. I'm here to discuss our agenda," DeLay said. "We have probably one of the most ambitious agendas for this year and next year that's ever been done, especially in the last 10 to 20 years, and we're going to get it done."
Republicans say a critical factor in whether DeLay rides out the storm is whether he retains the support of President Bush. DeLay and lawmakers met twice yesterday with Bush; it is not known whether he and the president discussed his troubles.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said DeLay retains the president's "confidence."
"We have worked with him on a number of important priorities as well as other congressional leaders, and the president intends to continue working with congressional leaders, like Speaker [Dennis] Hastert and Leader DeLay, to get things done for the American people," McClellan said.
Meanwhile, Democrats worked to turn up the heat on DeLay and connect him rhetorically to efforts by Senate Republicans to limit Democrats' ability to filibuster judicial nominations.
Both moves, Democratic leaders argued, are examples of what they called "an arrogance and abuse of power" by Republicans.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.