Wednesday, November 17, 2004

House Republicans Adopt Change That Would Benefit DeLay

The New York Times
November 17, 2004

House Republicans Adopt Change That Would Benefit DeLay


WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 - Fresh from election gains earlier this month, House Republicans today approved a change in party rules to prevent their majority leader, Tom DeLay, from having to step down from his leadership position should he be indicted in an investigation in Texas.

After a debate lasting two and a half hours, the Republicans voted for a new procedure under which the House party leaders would have 30 days to deliberate if one of their colleagues were indicted on a felony charge. At the end of the 30 days, the leaders would decide whether to ask the person under indictment to step aside at least temporarily.

The new rule supplants one that required a leadership member facing a felony indictment to step aside immediately.

The change, proposed by Representative Henry Bonilla of Texas, was approved this afternoon in a voice vote, with only a handful of dissenters. One of them, Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, called the change "a mistake."Republicans adopted the old rule in the 1990's, when they were in the minority and were trying to put the focus on investigations of prominent Democrats. They say a rule change is justified because the investigation involving Mr. DeLay, who was re-elected majority leader on Tuesday, is politically inspired.

The Republicans say they want to eliminate the chance for a prosecutor to be able to force Mr. DeLay from his post by obtaining an indictment.

"Congressman Bonilla's rule change is designed to prevent political manipulation of the legislative process," Taryn Fritz Walpole, a spokeswoman for the lawmaker, said.

Mr. DeLay's office said he was not taking a stand on the initiative, which his fellow Republicans discussed in a party conference.

"The majority leader believes members of the conference should come to their own conclusions on this issue and that the conference should work its will without his exerting undue influence one way or the other," his communications director, Stuart Roy, said.

House Democrats said on Tuesday that the impending change reflected the opposition's view on ethical behavior.

"If Republicans believe that an indicted member should be allowed to hold a top leadership position in the House of Representatives, their arrogance is astonishing," the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, said in a statement.

Mr. DeLay received back-to-back admonishments by the House Ethics Committee in the weeks before the election, angering some House allies who said the findings were political even though the panel was bipartisan. As the architect of disputed redistricting in Texas that toppled five Democratic incumbents, Mr. DeLay was instrumental in House Republicans' gaining a handful of seats on Nov. 2.

The investigation in Austin has resulted in the indictments of three allies of Mr. DeLay and several companies accused of illegally using corporate campaign contributions to help Republicans win state legislative seats, a move that cleared the way for redistricting.

As House Republicans dealt with that question, Senate Democrats officially chose new leadership to steer them through the more heavily Republican Congress.

And a veteran Senate Republican battled to save his chairmanship in a first test of new conservative power.

As a small group of anti-abortion demonstrators prayed and protested outside the Dirksen Senate Office building, the longtime senator, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, met privately with his colleagues trying to persuade them to allow him to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

After one meeting, the current chairman, Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a supporter of Mr. Specter, said: "Senator Specter handled himself very well. I expect him to be the next chairman. I think it will be resolved satisfactorily."

Mr. Hatch cannot keep his chairmanship because Senate Republicans have put term limits on the position.

Mr. Specter, who was re-elected on Nov. 2, has been under fire because of his statement at a news conference after the election that judicial nominees who opposed legal abortions would have trouble winning Senate confirmation.

One Republican on the Judiciary Committee who has a special grievance against Mr. Specter, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said he had not made up his mind whether to back the Pennsylvanian. In 1985, Mr. Sessions was nominated to a federal judgeship by President Ronald Reagan, and Mr. Specter opposed the nomination.

Leaders of conservative groups who have been clamoring for the Senate leadership to block Mr. Specter said they would continue their campaign against him until the formal selection of the chairman in January. They added that their differences with Mr. Specter extended well beyond abortion to opposition to same-sex marriage and changes in the legal system, school vouchers and tax cuts.

"Why would we want someone on board who does not share the president's judicial philosophy or his own party's?" asked Patrick Mahoney, the director of the Christian Defense Coalition and a protest organizer.

As that drama was playing out, Senate Democrats also met in private and officially selected Harry Reid of Nevada as their leader, replacing Tom Daschle after he lost his quest for re-election.

At a news conference, Mr. Reid joined his new leadership colleagues, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois as whip and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan as caucus secretary, and said he was willing to work with Republicans and their enlarged majority. but would not shy from confrontation.