WASHINGTON -- Succumbing to scandal, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Tuesday he is resigning from Congress in the face of a tough re-election race, closing out a career that blended unflinching conservatism with a bare-knuckled political style.
"I think I could have won this seat, but it would have been nasty. It would have cost a fortune to do it," said the Texas Republican, first elected in 1984.
DeLay said in an interview with Fox News that he was "looking forward to being liberated outside the House, doing whatever I can to unify the conservative cause."
DeLay relinquished the post as House majority leader last fall after his indictment in Texas as part of an investigation into the allegedly illegal use of funds for state legislative races. He decided in January against trying to get the leadership post back as an election-year corruption scandal staggered Republicans and emboldened minority Democrats.
Republicans said they expected DeLay to resign later this spring.
"He has served our nation with integrity and honor," said Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who succeeded DeLay in his leadership post earlier this year.
But Democrats said the developments marked more than the end to one man's career in Congress.
"Tom DeLay's decision to leave Congress is just the latest piece of evidence that the Republican Party is a party in disarray, a party out of ideas and out of energy," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Delay called President Bush on Monday and the two talked while the president was flying on Air Force One on his way back from Cincinnati, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Tuesday.
"The president thanked him for his service and all that he accomplished and wished him all the best," McClellan said. "Congressman DeLay has been a good ally whom the president has worked very closely with." Asked whether Bush tried to talk him out of it, McClellan said, 'This is a decision that Congressman DeLay made, and we respect his decision."
DeLay blamed "liberal Democrats" for making his re-election campaign largely a negative one that threatened the Republican hold on the seat. He portrayed his decision to resign as a fatal blow for the fortunes of his opponent, Democrat Nick Lampson, who has garnered national attention -- and financial support.
"It will no longer be a national race like it was ... His money will dry up," DeLay said. "This is probably the worst day of his campaign because he knows that any Republican who replaces me on the ballot will win this seat."
Last week, former DeLay aide Tony Rudy pleaded guilty to conspiring with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others to corrupt public officials, and he promised to help the broad federal investigation of bribery and lobbying fraud that already has resulted in three convictions.
Neither Rudy, Abramoff nor anyone else connected with the investigation has publicly accused DeLay of breaking the law, but Rudy confessed that he had taken actions while working in the majority leader's office that were illegal.
DeLay has consistently denied all wrongdoing, and he capped a triumph in a contested GOP primary earlier this year with a vow to win re-election.
"I know that the left has used it to try to brand me with guilt by association, but I have always served honorably and ethically," DeLay said Tuesday. "I've never broken the law or the spirit of the law or even a House rule."
It was not clear whether Texas Gov. Rick Perry would call a special election to fill out the unexpired portion of DeLay's term, or whether the seat would remain vacant until it is filled in November.
Either way, DeLay's concern about the potential loss of a Houston-area seat long in Republican hands reflected a deeper worry among GOP strategists. After a dozen years in the majority, they face a strong challenge from Democrats this fall, at a time when President Bush's public support is sagging, and when the Abramoff scandal has helped send congressional approval ratings tumbling.
Until scandal sent him to the sidelines, DeLay had held leadership posts since the Republicans won control of the House in a 1994 landslide. At first, he had to muscle his way to the table, defeating then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's handpicked candidate to become whip.
But DeLay quickly established himself as a forceful presence -- earning a nickname as "The Hammer" -- and he easily became majority leader when the spot opened up.
DeLay was the driving force behind President Clinton's impeachment in 1999, weeks after Republicans lost seats at the polls in a campaign in which they tried to make an issue of Clinton's personal behavior.
His trademark aggressiveness helped trigger his downfall, when he led a drive to redraw Texas' congressional district boundaries to increase the number of seats in GOP hands.
The gambit succeeded, but DeLay was soon caught up in an investigation involving the use of corporate funds in the campaigns of legislators who had participated in the redistricting.