President Bush is doing for Tom DeLay what he refused to do for Trent Lott three years ago: taking a political risk to defend an embattled congressional leader's career, several Republican officials and strategists said.
With DeLay facing intense scrutiny of his travel, fund-raising practices and relationship with controversial lobbyists, Bush on Tuesday offered the Texas Republican a timely show of support by inviting him to a public event and aboard Air Force One for a trip back to Washington from Texas.
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said the president supports DeLay "as strongly as he ever has."
While the two men have never been close personally, Bush has told friends he needs DeLay's help enacting a second-term agenda and does not consider the allegations against the House majority leader serious enough to warrant the cold shoulder he delivered to Lott, R-Miss., then Senate majority leader, in 2002.
Lott was forced to step down after making racially insensitive comments, and the president refused to voice support for Lott, which many Republicans said contributed to Lott's fall.
Bush is adopting a markedly different strategy in publicly defending DeLay amid recent allegations that the Texas Republican may have violated House ethics rules by taking a trip to London and Scotland partially charged to the credit cards of two lobbyists, several Republicans said.
If the DeLay controversy explodes into a bigger scandal, some said, it could taint the White House.
"He does not think DeLay has done anything wrong," said Charlie Black, a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the White House. "It's Bush's natural instinct to stand with him. There could be a risk, but it's the kind of risk (Bush) takes all the time."
Bush might also feel boxed in and left with little choice but to help DeLay, who has won the devotion of social conservatives, several Republicans said.
Bush has no connection to the issues surrounding DeLay's controversies, but one of the lobbyists whose credit card was charged for part of DeLay's trip was a major fund-raiser for the president's re-election.
Jack Abramoff raised more than $100,000 for Bush in 2004 and had close ties to his Interior Department. In addition, investigators are looking into a $4 million payment that Abramoff made to lobbyist Ralph Reed, a key player in the president's re-election operation. Two people close to Bush said the entire party will suffer if the controversy spreads and become a major issue with the public.