Capital Briefs: March 10-14

REPUBLICANS DISAGREE OVER RENZI: With three-term Rep. Rick Renzi under indictment on corruption charges, there is apparent disagreement among GOP leaders in the House over whether the Arizona Republican, who has already announced his retirement in ‘08, should resign. “The charges contained in this indictment are completely unacceptable for a member of Congress,” House GOP Leader John Boehner (Ohio) told reporters last week, “and I strongly urge Rep. Renzi to seriously consider whether he can continue to effectively represent his constituents under these circumstances. I expect to meet with Rep. Renzi at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss this situation and the best option for his constituents, our conference and the American people.” When asked at a Christian Science Monitor press breakfast last week whether he felt Renzi should resign, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) sounded far more sympathetic than Boehner. “I don’t tell people they ought to resign,” said Cole, noting that Renzi was a “friend” and “classmate [in Congress]” with whom he worked closely on Native-American issues. Cole said he told Renzi: “You have every right to go argue your case.”

NRCC CHIEF ON NRCC SCANDAL: At the same Monitor breakfast, Chairman Cole was asked about the recent negative publicity over auditing and fiduciary mismanagement at his committee. Regarding the revelation that no audit of the NRCC’s finances had been conducted in seven years, Cole said that he was “limited as to what I can say,” but “I would not have taken the steps I did [bringing in outside auditors, informing the FBI and telling the press]” if he did not feel it was a serious matter. Cole went on to say that he and his staff “had every reason to believe there were audits being conducted” in the past seven years and that when he learns more, “we’ll tell you more.”

Asked if he had any comment on the suspension of two NRCC officials from their positions, Cole simply said, “No, I don’t” and again said he was limited in what he could say “by our counsel and by our auditor.” Days after Cole’s appearance at the breakfast, the New York Times reported that “hundreds of thousands of dollars are missing and presumed stolen” from the NRCC and that former committee Treasurer Christopher Ward, one of the two suspended officials, “is the focus of the FBI’s criminal investigation.”

YET REYNOLDS HANGS ON: As the NRCC auditing scandal thickens, continued press attention has been focused on Cole’s predecessor as chairman of the campaign committee, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.). Last week, Reynolds said that he and the committee were victims of “an elaborate scheme resulting in financial irregularities” by a “long-serving professional staff member”—almost certainly referring to Ward, who was fired as NRCC treasurer by Reynolds five years ago and recently suspended pending completion of the auditing probe. Asked by Human Events about rumors Reynolds might retire this year, his spokesman L.D. Platt dismissed them as “a joke” and noted that the New Yorker had raised more than $1 million for his re-election bid.

WHAT’S WITH CHUCK HAGEL? More than a few Republicans were wondering that after the Nebraska Republican senator’s recent appearance on CNN’s “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer” before John McCain had wrapped up the GOP nomination. Asked by guest host John King whether he would get involved in the 2008 presidential campaign, Hagel replied: “Chuck Hagel is out of the mix. I’m going to continue to focus on my job in the Senate, and do what I can do to influence the direction of our country over the next year.” Asked whether he would support McCain, Hagel replied, “I’ve not been involved in the primary, and I am still not involved in any of that. At the appropriate time, then I’ll have something to say about it.” That answer was somewhat baffling, since Hagel strongly campaigned for McCain in the 2000 GOP nomination battle and the Nebraskan (who is retiring from the Senate this year) has been widely mentioned as a possible secretary of State in a McCain Administration. When King pressed and asked if his answer meant he might not support the Republican Party’s nominee, Hagel replied: “I said at the appropriate time I’ll have something to say about it.”

WHAT WILL SELL IN PENNSY? Based on exit polls, the winning themes that Hillary Clinton successfully deployed in the Ohio primary last week should pack a wallop in the all-important primary in blue-collar Pennsylvania April 22. According to a survey conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for the National Election Pool (a consortium of news organizations), 59% of Democratic primary voters felt that the economy was the “top issue” in Ohio—where Clinton won comfortably. The only other state in which a higher percentage of Democrats rated the economy the top issue was Michigan. The same survey also showed that nine out 10 Democratic primary voters felt the economy was “not so good” or “bad.” Edison/Mitofsky also found that older Hispanic voters put Clinton over Barack Obama in their close contest in Texas last week, with the New York senator carrying that group by a four-to-one margin and breaking even with Obama among younger Hispanic voters.

WHO’S BROWNBACK’S BUDDY? More than a few jaws dropped in the U.S. Capitol March 4, when conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.) brought a startling guest to a regular meeting of cultural conservatives. Joining the Kansan at the Values Action Team (VAT) meeting in the Senate was Richard Cizik, vice president for government affairs of the National Council of Evangelicals and someone viewed with distrust by social conservatives for his efforts to put global warming and other extreme environmental causes on a par with the pro-life and traditional marriage issues. More recently, the man known as the “green evangelist” has been a strong critic of tough law enforcement measures to deal with illegal immigration, telling Christianity Today (February 2008) that “if that’s your method of courting Latino voters, I suggest you start over.” Of John McCain, Cizik said that he agrees with him on the issues that have most antagonized conservative activists. “I agree with him on campaign finance reform. I agree with him on immigration,” Christianity Today reported.

Brownback Press Secretary Brian Hart confirmed to Human Events Political Editor John Gizzi that the senator brought Cizik to the VAT meeting, saying that “[Brownback]and Rich Cizik are friends and have been for a long time.” “I don’t know where they agree or disagree on every issue,” Hart added, but noted that Brownback does not buy into Cizik’s “Al Gore-like position on global warming.” Brownback’s spokesman also insisted that Cizik gave the invocation at the VAT meeting and did not participate in any discussion.