Buffeted by scandal, US House Republicans are clamoring for new election-year leadership, and indicted Representative Tom DeLay's hopes of returning to power as floor leader are dwindling.
"I do not want Tom DeLay to return," Representative Heather Wilson of New Mexico, a perennial election-year target of Democrats, said on Friday.
"It's clear that we need to elect a new majority leader to restore the trust and confidence of the American people," said Representative Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, as two fellow Republicans circulated a petition calling for new elections.
DeLay, a Texan whose fierce devotion to conservative causes has helped nurture the Republican majority, gave no public indication he was willing to abandon his quest to return to his powerful post.
But his longtime friend, Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, signaled he would not try to block the rank-and-file from acting.
"This is consistent with the speaker's announcement ... that House Republicans would revisit this matter at the beginning of this year," said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean, referring to the petition drive.
Other officials said an announcement on new elections could come within a few days, before Hastert is scheduled to leave on an overseas trip.
The speaker's hold on power appears secure. Several officials said he has been involved in discussions in recent days on a package of ethics reform measures to be announced next week, part of a broader Republican attempt to minimize any election-year taint of scandal.
Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, who took over as majority leader temporarily when DeLay stepped aside following his indictment on political money-laundering charges in Texas, is certain to run for the post in his own right if new elections are held.
Representative John Boehner of Ohio, a former member of the leadership, is his likeliest rival, and there may be other contenders as well.
The maneuvering occurred near the end of a week in which lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the central figure in a growing public corruption investigation and a man with close ties to Republicans, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and several other charges in two federal courtrooms.
At the same time, an AP-Ipsos poll found that 49 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer to see Democrats in control of Congress, and 36 percent said Republicans.
DeLay insists he is innocent of wrongdoing in the Texas case and says he intends to reclaim his leadership post once he is cleared.
Hastert and other Republicans accepted that arrangement temporarily last year, and DeLay is maneuvering to win the dismissal of charges or gain an acquittal by early February.
But Abramoff's guilty pleas appear to have changed the political environment for Republicans 11 months before the midterm elections.
"The situation is that Tom's legal situation doesn't seem to be reaching clarity," Representative John Kline of Minnesota said in an interview.
"There are stories of more indictments or questions associated with Jack Abramoff. And I think that Tom DeLay is going to have to concentrate on that," he said.
DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said his boss "appreciates that a majority of his colleagues recognizes that he remains committed to fulfilling his responsibilities as majority leader and that he'll be quickly exonerated in Texas."