Wednesday, April 27, 2005

G.O.P. Will Relent on Ethics Rules, House Speaker Says

The New York Times
April 27, 2005
G.O.P. Will Relent on Ethics Rules, House Speaker Says

WASHINGTON, April 27 - Saying that an ethics impasse needed to be resolved to provide a chance for Representative Tom DeLay to clear his name, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said this morning that Republicans were ready to relent on rules changes that have left the ethics committee unable to do any work.

"I am willing to step back," Mr. Hastert told reporters after a closed-door meeting with House Republicans. "I think we need to move forward with the ethics process."

Mr. Hastert, who defended the rules changes forced through earlier this year by Republicans as an attempt to protect the rights of lawmakers, did not specify what he would do and said he would outline his plan later today in a letter to Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader.

But he and others indicated that his intention was to reverse three rules opposed by Democrats, an action that would require a vote of the full House. Without naming Mr. DeLay specifically, the speaker alluded to the furor surrounding the majority leader over overseas travels, fund-raising and contacts with lobbyists.

"There is a member, especially on our side, who needs to have the process move forward so he can clear his name," the speaker said. "Right now he can't clear his name." Mr. DeLay has offered to meet with leaders of the ethics panel to resolve questions surrounding his travel and Republican members of the committee said last week they were willing to investigate the majority leader.

Republicans have been saying that the ethics fight, combined with the attention that has been focused on Mr. DeLay over fund-raising and travel irregularities, has not only become a distraction but also a political liability that they want to defuse.

"Obviously it is an issue that we very, very much want to address," said Representative David Dreier of California, the Rules Committee chairman, who would not discuss details of the leadership strategy.

The Democrats have clearly been able to exploit the deadlock over the ethics panel, painting the Republicans as unwilling to investigate or police their own. The changes were denounced as violating the panel's bipartisan tradition, making the Republicans appear as if they believed they were above the law.

Republicans have asserted that the changes, drafted by the speaker's office and pushed through by the Republicans in January, were designed to better protect the rights of lawmakers. But their counterparts quickly complained that they were instituted after the House ethics committee admonished Mr. DeLay three times last year. "We fumbled the ball badly," said one senior Republican official who spoke anonymously because he did not want to be viewed as critical of the leadership.

Other officials said the leadership was considering a floor vote on whether to revert to the rules that governed the handling of complaints until early this year. Republicans could also allow individual up-or-down floor votes on the three rules at the center of the dispute to see if allowing a new debate and vote would eliminate Democratic objections.

"They have to cauterize this," Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said Tuesday afternoon, referring to the ethics fight. Mr. Hoyer said he was contacted last week by the Republican whip, Roy Blunt of Missouri, about ways to resolve the stalemate.

Representative Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the House panel, which is evenly split between the two parties, said Tuesday that he too had received signals that the Republicans wanted to settle the issue. He said he would welcome an acceptable resolution. "I just want to emphasize that it is really important that they hit this standard of a bipartisan ethics committee and bipartisan process," he said. "That is the premise to a valid ethics committee."

Under the new rules, complaints could be dismissed after 45 days if the panel did not agree on how to proceed, a change critics said would give lawmakers an incentive to delay complaints until they were dropped. Another rule allows the same lawyer to represent both the subject of a complaint and witnesses and a third would give new notification and appeal rights to lawmakers who are to be named in a panel report.

Mr. DeLay faces questions about whether recent overseas trips were underwritten by a lobbyist in violation of House rules, an accusation he denies. He has offered to meet with the leaders of the ethics committee to resolve the questions, and it appears likely that if the committee takes up the matter, it would look into his travel as well as questions about trips by other lawmakers.

In an effort to resolve the impasse, Republican members of the panel offered last week to begin an immediate inquiry into Mr. DeLay's travel if Democrats were to drop their opposition to the rules. But Democrats rejected that offer.

Republican officials say that reversing the rules is a sensitive matter with House Republicans, who last year overturned a party rule in order to allow Mr. DeLay to remain leader even if he was indicted by a grand jury. They reversed course under public pressure a few weeks later. The officials said the leadership wanted to be certain of the sentiment of Republican lawmakers before urging them to change course again.

Some Republicans acknowledge that the way the rules were changed with no Democratic involvement has left the party vulnerable to accusations that it was seeking to hamstring the panel after it admonished Mr. DeLay three times last year.