WASHINGTON -- The big political question for Republicans nowadays is whether they will take a hit in the midterm elections for the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
As this is written, the evidence was scant that it will have very much of an impact, if any, on how Americans will vote nearly 10 months from now. But there is no doubt that the whole sordid mess is dramatically changing the House GOP's leadership lineup, its reform agenda and the way that lobbying is done in this town.
As things stand now, there will be a new House Republican leader to take Tom DeLay's place permanently, as he battles an indictment on campaign money-laundering charges, and a new House GOP whip, a pivotal political post in the party's hierarchy.
At the same time, House Speaker Dennis Hastert is planning to bring forth some of the toughest House ethics rules in modern memory to rein in the too-often cozy relationship between members of Congress, lobbyists and their money. That will be followed by legislation to toughen the laws governing lobbying, reporting requirements, penalties and enforcement.
The word has come down from Hastert that this scandal is going to be nuked by the Republican leadership before it further undermines the public confidence in the integrity of the GOP-run Congress. DeLay's decision to step down from the leadership was the first step in that process.
Party leaders expect there could be further repercussions if Abramoff points fingers at members of Congress who received campaign funding from him or his associates, and subsequently did favors for his clients. Could that have a rippling effect throughout the party in the fall elections? GOP campaign strategists don't think so.
"The bottom line is that the only people who potentially can be harmed by this are only those who are actually found guilty," said Carl Forti, the National Republican Congressional Committee's communications director.
"I don't know any member of Congress who lost because of something another member did or did not do," Forti told me.
Still, public cynicism about Congress' honesty and ethics is running high in the wake of Abramoff's guilty pleas on charges of tax evasion, fraud and corruption charges. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed this week that 58 percent now think the case is "evidence of widespread corruption in Washington," versus 34 percent who say it is "limited to a few corrupt individuals."
Notably, though, few Americans blame just Republicans for the scandal.
Nearly three-fourths say "there isn't much difference between (the two parties) when it comes to ethics and honesty."
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