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The Passion of the Tom:

WASHINGTON – Before, Republicans just scared other people. Now, they’re starting to scare themselves.

When Dick Cheney tells you you’ve gone too far, you know you’re way over the edge.

Last week, the vice president told The New York Post’s editorial board that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay should not have jumped ugly on the judges who refused to order that Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube be reinserted. He said he would “have problems” with the DeLay plan to get revenge on the judges: “I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Usually, the White House loves bullies. It embraces John Bolton, nominated as U.N. ambassador, even though, as The New York Times reports Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is reviewing allegations that Bolton misused intelligence and bullied subordinates to help buttress WMD hokum when he was at the State Department.

But there’s some skittishness in the party leadership about the Passion of the Tom, the fiery battle of the born-again Texan to show that he’s being persecuted on ethics by a vast left-wing conspiracy. Some Republicans are wondering whether they need to pull a Trent Lott on Tom DeLay before he turns into Newt Gingrich, who led his party to the promised land but then had to be discarded when he became the petulant “definer” and “arouser” of civilization. Do they want DeLay careering around in Queeg style as they go into 2006?

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist joined Cheney in rejecting DeLay’s call to punish and possibly impeach judges – who are already an endangered species these days, with so much violence leveled against them. “I believe we have a fair and independent judiciary today,” Frist said. “I respect that.”

Of course, Frist and the White House still want to pack the federal courts with right-wing judges, but they don’t want it to look as if they’re doing it because Tom DeLay told them to or because of unhappiness at the Schiavo case.

No matter how much Democrats may be caviling over the House Republicans’ attempts to squelch the Ethics Committee before it goes after DeLay (the former exterminator who pushed to impeach Bill Clinton), privately they’re rooting for DeLay to thrive. They’re hoping to do in 2006 what the Republicans did in 1994, when Gingrich and his acolytes used Democratic arrogance and ethical lapses to seize the House.

DeLay is seeking sanctuary in Rome at the pope’s funeral, and he will hang on to the bitter end. He got thunderous applause from his House colleagues on Wednesday morning, showing once more that DeLay has a strong hold on the loyalty of those who have benefited from the largesse of his fat-cat friends and from his shrewdness in keeping them in the majority.

“I think a lot of members think he’s taking arrows for all of us,” Rep. Roy Blunt told the press Wednesday, backing up DeLay’s martyr complex.

DeLay lashed out at the latest article questioning his ethics, calling it “just another seedy attempt by the liberal media to embarrass me.” Philip Shenon reported in The New York Times that DeLay’s wife and daughter have been paid more than half a million dollars since 2001 by the DeLay political action and campaign committees.

Republican family values.

The political action committee said in a statement that the DeLay family members provided valuable services: “Mrs. DeLay provides big picture, long-term strategic guidance and helps with personnel decisions.”

Political wives are renowned for injecting themselves into the middle of their husbands’ office politics at no charge; a lot of members would pay them to go away.

The Washington Post also splashed DeLay on the front page with an article about a third DeLay trip under scrutiny: a six-day trip to Moscow in 1997 by DeLay was “underwritten by business interests lobbying in support of the Russian government, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the trip arrangements.”

All the divisions that President Bush was able to bridge in 2004 are now bursting forth as different wings of his party joust. John Danforth, the former Republican senator and U.N. ambassador, wrote an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times last week saying that, on issues from stem cell research to Terri Schiavo, his party “has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement.”When the Rev. Danforth, an Episcopal minister who prayed with Clarence Thomas when he was under attack by Anita Hill, says the party has gone too far, it’s way over the edge.

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