Wednesday, January 05, 2005

After Retreat, G.O.P. Changes House Ethics Rule

The New York Times
January 5, 2005

After Retreat, G.O.P. Changes House Ethics Rule

WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 - House Republicans pushed through a significant change in the handling of ethics complaints over strong Democratic objections Tuesday as the 109th Congress convened with a burst of pomp and partisanship.

The House, on a vote of 220 to 195, enacted a change that would effectively dismiss a complaint in the event of a deadlock in the ethics committee, which is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. Its approval came after a retreat by Republicans on Monday on other proposed ethics revisions.

At the heart of both actions were calculations about how far Republicans should go to protect the House majority leader, Representative Tom DeLay. Many party members were unhappy with the ethics committee for the three admonishments it delivered to Mr. DeLay last year.

At the same time, some Republicans were uncomfortable retaining a party rule adopted in November that was intended to shield Mr. DeLay from having to step down from his leadership post if he was indicted in a campaign finance investigation in Texas. Republicans said the new approach to handling a deadlock on the ethics panel would protect lawmakers from purely partisan attacks.

"This change restores the presumption of innocence in our process," said Representative David Dreier of California, chairman of the Rules Committee.

Democrats, who said Republicans backed off on the other rule proposals only under fire, said the change approved would badly hobble a panel already considered weak.

"There should be no misunderstanding," said Representative Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, senior Democrat on the ethics committee. "These provisions that remain would seriously undermine the ethics process in the House."

Under the system instituted in 1997, if no action is taken on a complaint within 45 days, a preliminary investigation is started. The new approach would require an affirmative vote by the panel to begin an investigation, meaning at least one committee member belonging to the same party as the lawmaker at the center of the complaint would have to join in backing an inquiry or the complaint would die.

"If these changes had been in place in the last Congress, no ethics complaints would have seen the light of day," said Representative Louise M. Slaughter of New York, senior Democrat on the Rules Committee.

The chairman of the ethics panel, Representative Joel Hefley, Republican of Colorado, withdrew his earlier opposition to the changes, saying he believed that the most serious threat to the committee's authority had been dropped. On Monday, Republicans decided not to proceed with a change that would have eliminated a broad standard of conduct used in many previous ethics cases.

But Mr. Hefley continued to express misgivings about the plan that was adopted. "I think that creates a problem in trying to implement a fair and even-handed process," he said.

Republicans expect that Mr. Hefley, who presided over the cases involving Mr. DeLay, will soon be removed as chairman.

In remarks on the floor, Mr. DeLay, who surprised his colleagues Monday by asking that the internal party rule intended to protect him be reversed, backed the ethics rules package. But he said he also expected continuing Democratic attacks.

"It is a new year," Mr. DeLay said, "but an old game and one to which we cannot afford to stoop."

Republican lawmakers and senior aides said rising unease among rank-and-file Republicans over last November's rule change, which would have allowed party leaders to hold their post even if indicted, led Mr. DeLay to ask for its reversal.

The lawmakers and other officials said many House members were struggling with second thoughts after voting to protect Mr. DeLay, spurred by criticism from constituents. Several said they were ready to reject the ethics rules package as a potential major embarrassment.

Mr. DeLay, senior aides said, was not asked or encouraged to call for the party rule to be rescinded. But, calculating that he was unlikely to be charged in the Texas case, he decided to try and ease the tension among his fellow Republicans by taking the initiative. He told them flatly at the closed session that he did not expect to be charged. Top aides and others said that the idea of backtracking was first raised by Mr. DeLay's staff a few weeks ago.

The decision by Mr. DeLay was applauded both by lawmakers who had approved the rules change last year as well as his allies who saw the reversal as a way to deprive Democrats of an avenue of attack.

"I think it takes the politics off the table," said Representative Thomas M. Reynolds, Republican of New York.

Leadership aides said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who met with Mr. DeLay before the majority leader asked for the new party rule to be rescinded, did not pressure Mr. DeLay.

The floor fight over the ethics changes came after both the House and Senate were gaveled into order at noon before throngs of relatives and supporters eager to witness the swearing in of 50 newly elected House members and senators.

In the Senate, Republicans celebrated their enhanced majority as seven Republican freshmen and two Democrats along with the incumbents re-elected in November were sworn in by Vice President Dick Cheney. While the Senate was for a day absent of the sharp exchanges that were heard in the House in the first hours of the Congress, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, made it clear that he did not intend to dodge future fights.

As he laid out the Republican agenda, Dr. Frist said he would no longer allow Democrats to filibuster any of President Bush's judicial nominees. He said he chose not to follow recommendations to immediately move to change the rules to bar filibusters, saying he wanted to give Democrats the opportunity to show "self-restraint" on judicial nominations.

Republicans in the House and the Senate said they would be aggressive in working with Mr. Bush, singling out changes in Social Security and the tax code as priorities.

"In this Congress, big plans will stir men's blood," Mr. Hastert said after he was re-elected speaker.