THE GOP’S SCANLON NIGHTMARE….Uber-activist Paul Weyrich told the LA Times a few weeks ago, “I’ve been talking to some [Republican] members who are scared to death” by the Abramoff affair. Weyrich added, “That one has the potential for blowing into something far larger.” With this in mind, it’s difficult to overstate just how much Michael Scanlon’s plea deal strikes fear into the heart of Congress.

A onetime congressional staffer who became a top partner to lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiring to bribe a congressman and other public officials and agreed to pay back more than $19 million he fraudulently charged Indian tribal clients.

The plea agreement between prosecutors and Michael Scanlon, a former press secretary to then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), provided fresh detail about the alleged bribes. The document also indicated the nature of testimony Scanlon is prepared to offer against a congressman it calls “Representative #1” — who has been identified by attorneys in the case as Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio). […]

Investigators are looking at half a dozen members of Congress, current and former senior Hill aides, a former deputy secretary of the interior, and Abramoff’s former lobbying colleagues, according to sources familiar with the probe who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Because of his central role in much of Abramoff’s business, Scanlon could be a key witness in any trials that arise from the case.

To be sure, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney clearly has the most to worry about. As subscription-only Roll Call recently reported, federal prosecutors’ case against Scanlon alleges that Ney agreed to “perform a series of official acts” that benefited Scanlon and Abramoff’s clients in return for a series of favors, including a golf junket to Scotland, tickets to sporting events, and free meals.

And, unfortunately for Ney, the “series of official acts” were plentiful. There’s already evidence that Ney pressured a casino owner to sell a fleet of ships to benefit one of Abramoff’s clients, received one of those luxurious Scottish golf trips that Abramoff is famous for, promised to use his role on the House Administration Committee to help reopen a casino for an Abramoff client, and placed comments in the Congressional Record favorable to Abramoff’s purchase of a Florida gambling company. In all, prosecutors have found 11 instances in which the lawmaker used his office to help Scanlon, Abramoff, or their clients.

Ney claims Abramoff duped him. We’ll see how that defense works out for him.

As for broader panic on the Hill, Plato Cacheris, Scanlon’s lawyer, was asked at a news conference yesterday whether other lawmakers will be caught up in this fiasco. He said, “I would rather not comment on that.”

Republicans shuddered when the Plame scandal captured the political world’s attention, but that was a White House affair — it’s the Abramoff/Scanlon controversy that threatens lawmakers on the Hill directly. Thomas E. Mann, a Congressional specialist at the Brookings Institution, said, “I think this has the potential to be the biggest scandal in Congress in over a century. I’ve been around Washington for 35 years, watching Congress, and I’ve never seen anything approaching Abramoff for cynicism and chutzpah in proposing quid pro quos to members of Congress.”

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.