Friday, February 10, 2006

Ethics scandal looms over Republicans' meeting

Ethics scandal looms over Republicans' meeting

By Thomas Ferraro

CAMBRIDGE, Maryland (Reuters) - Republicans in the House of Representatives, rocked by ethics scandals, met in a secluded Maryland town on Thursday, hoping to regroup under new leadership and position themselves to retain power in November's elections.

A week after electing Rep. John Boehner of Ohio as majority leader to succeed indicted Texan Tom DeLay, Republicans opened a three-day retreat at a time when public opinion polls show broad discontent with Congress and the White House.

"I'm going to tell them they face challenges and opportunities," Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman said shortly before addressing the gathering at a waterfront hotel in Cambridge, a two-hour drive from Washington.

"I'm going to tell them that the public clearly wants reform -- that the public believes that the country needs to continue reforming things if we are going to be on the right track," Mehlman told reporters, referring to lobbying practices on Capitol Hill and such basics as health care, education and national security.

Lobbying scandals and Justice Department investigations involving Republican lawmakers and former aides threaten the party's control of the House, which it has held since 1995.

Boehner said the retreat would allow for a "period of renewal" and bonding. He said it would take time to unite his 231-member caucus on a lobbying reform package, one that party leaders said would seek input from Democrats.

"We're going to have, frankly, an ethics seminar for all our members and staff so that they know what the rules are, and I think it'll help ensure that members and staff live up to those rules," Boehner said.


In the wake of a scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Boehner has called for more public disclosure of the relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists rather than a fundamental overhaul of the way Congress does business.

Unlike some of his colleagues, he is opposed to abolishing "earmark" spending for pet projects, urging instead more transparency.

A number of Republicans have been drawn into the investigation of Abramoff, who pleaded guilty last month to fraud charges and agreed to help prosecutors in their corruption probe.

Separately, Republican Randy Cunningham of California resigned from the House in November after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for help in securing Defense Department contracts.

Boehner was the surprise winner of a House Republican leadership election last week, defeating Roy Blunt of Missouri. DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader last year after he was indicted in Texas on campaign-related felony charges.

President George W. Bush was scheduled to address House Republicans on Friday. Bush was expected to focus on his $2.77 trillion proposed federal budget that would boost defense spending, slow Medicare's growth and cut domestic programs in an effort to soothe Republican frustrations over high deficits.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)