GALVESTON, Texas -- President Bush gave embattled House majority leader Tom DeLay a high-profile, in-person show of support yesterday, thanking the Texas Republican, who is facing allegations of ethical improprieties, for his leadership in Congress.
Bush traveled to Galveston to pitch his proposal to add private investment accounts to Social Security. DeLay didn't participate in the public discussion and sat several rows back in the audience.
But the presence of the man seen by the White House as crucial to pushing Bush's plans through Congress was no accident. The Bush administration made a point of including DeLay in the event near his congressional district.
''I appreciate the leadership of Congressman Tom DeLay in working on important issues that matter to the country," Bush said before he began to plug his Social Security overhaul.
DeLay, who rode with the president in his limousine, on his Marine One helicopter, and then on Air Force One for the return flight to Washington, has said he's willing to defend himself before the House ethics committee, but the panel is essentially shut down because of a deadlock over new rules imposed by Republicans.
Upon landing, and after a goodbye handshake at the bottom of the Air Force One steps, DeLay said the president's show of support for him felt ''very good."
''The president was very gracious," he said. ''We feel very humbled by that kind of support."
Protesters showed their disdain for Bush's Social Security agenda, but one sign targeted DeLay: ''Save America Without DeLay."
DeLay faces questions about the source of funding for some of his foreign trips, political fund-raising for Texas elections, and his ties to a lobbyist under federal criminal investigation. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
The Democratic Party said Bush should be denouncing DeLay, not rewarding him.
''It's time for George Bush to stop giving Tom DeLay a free ride," said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney.
A mini pep rally broke out inside the hall before Bush arrived. As a clutch of photographers scurried to focus their lenses on the majority leader, one woman shouted, ''We love you, Tom!" That prompted DeLay to stand up and wave, which earned him a loud standing ovation.