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By Russ Smith | Posted 1/11/2006

I’ve lost little sleep over last week’s plea bargain by lobbyist/crook Jack Abramoff. As a voter who hopes, and expects, the Republicans to maintain their congressional majorities this fall, it’s not the kind of political development that’s particularly cheerful, but at least Abramoff sang to the feds at the beginning of the year, when there’s still time to minimize damage.

There are a number of steps the lethargic GOP leadership can make in the next month to get this story off the front page. The first order of business was accomplished Jan. 7 when Rep. Tom DeLay abandoned his hope to return as majority leader. DeLay’s up to his eyeballs in Abramoff-related difficulties, and it’s essential he disappears into the back benches of Congress.

New leadership elections are slated to take place in the House when that body reconvenes after a lengthy recess on Jan. 31. The smart play would be to make some wholesome changes and toss out ineffective Speaker Denny Hastert at the same time as choosing DeLay’s replacement, installing a GOP “renegade” such as Mike Pence, Jeff Flake, or Eric Cantor. Current favorites Roy Blunt (acting Majority Leader) and John Boehner are too cushy with the K Street monolith to signify anything other than a shuffling of seats. It doesn’t matter that lobbyist greed and corruption didn’t begin when Abramoff set up shop in D.C., benefiting mostly Republicans but also more Democrats than the Democratic National Committee would like to admit. The Republicans are in power now and they have the most to lose.

And Senate Republicans, looking at a loss of several seats in the midterm elections (Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, possibly Tennessee, Ohio, and Missouri), ought to boot current Majority Leader Bill Frist out of power as well. Frist, who, like outgoing New York Gov. George Pataki, is harboring illusory presidential ambitions, has been the worst GOP Senate leader since, well, the last one, Trent Lott.

Additionally, it’d be wise to purge, sooner rather than later, those elected officials and well-known conservatives (Rep. Bob Ney, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed) whose association with Abramoff will be the stuff of TV commercials as soon as cashes the latest check from George Soros and devises a media strategy.

Locally, Gov. Robert Ehrlich returned the $16,000 his campaigns have received from Abramoff the day after the lobbyist made his plea agreement. According to the Sun’s David Nitkin, the governor said on WBAL radio that he waited until Abramoff cut a deal because of his “romantic notion, it’s a little unique, that everybody should be viewed as innocent until, you know, proven or plead guilty.” This wasn’t Ehrlich’s finest moment, making a joke in a volatile political environment. He did bring up, however, the donations made to Maryland Democrats Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Steny Hoyer by Abramoff clients: Mikulski donated her $5000 to charity, while Hoyer, for the time being, is keeping the $17,500 he received.

Hoyer’s decision is somewhat baffling. The Southern Marylander appears to be clean, ethically, and that small sum will have no effect on his certain re-election. In addition, as more moderate Democrats in the House grow disenchanted with paleo-liberal Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, they’re looking at Hoyer, the minority whip, as a more representative leader. Similarly, it’s hard to understand why Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who really doesn’t need the money ($42,500), or Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid ($30,500) aren’t taking the pro forma high road and giving up their contributions.

I guess it’s not surprising, given his cozy relationship with the media, but Sen. John McCain is probably the one politician whose reputation has been enhanced by the Abramoff indictment. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was typical, writing on Jan. 5, “Abramoff, of course, is the personification of the Washington McCain has long railed against.” Cohen doesn’t take the time to note, even in passing, that McCain was one of the Keating Five back in the ’80s. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (online, Jan. 4), while touting McCain as a possible third-party presidential candidate in 2008, did mention the Arizonan’s association with businessman Keating. Yet Fineman sanitizes this McCain blemish by saying that his brush with unethical conduct seared him as much as his years of captivity in Vietnam. Spare me the theatrics.

I’m not a McCain fan, but in the interest of keeping the White House in GOP hands, I’d support him three years from now. Better than Mark Warner or Hillary Clinton. But you have to wonder if the full-fledged romance between the elite media and McCain will continue once a Democrat has been nominated and they have to pick between an anti-abortion military hawk and someone whose views are closer to their own. My bet is a massive McCain defection starting in June of that year.

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