Saturday, January 20, 2007

Democratic House votes to protect interns

Democratic House votes to protect interns
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Friday to better protect its teenage interns in response to an Internet sex scandal that helped Democrats win control of the U.S. Congress last November.

A day after the House wrapped up its "first 100-hour" legislative agenda in less than half that time, it moved to prevent a repeat of the seedy Republican affair.

On a vote of 416-0, the House approved legislation to add a former intern and a parent of a current intern to the House board that oversees its internship program.

The bill also would require the board to meet regularly and seek bipartisanship by stipulating that each party is equally represented with two House members. The majority party now gets two board seats, the minority one.

Last September, Republican Mark Foley of Florida abruptly resigned from the House after it was disclosed he had sent sexually provocative electronic messages to interns, also known as pages.

The scandal mushroomed after it became known that a number of senior Republicans and aides had received warnings about Foley, prompting charges of a cover-up that damaged the party in the 2006 congressional elections.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, hailed passage of the bill "to protect pages who are in the House's care."

"The Democratic majority will also work to oversee the program and enforce these new rules vigorously, which is key to the success of this program and the safety of our young people," Hoyer said.

On Monday, the House will again focus on ethics when it considers a bill to deny congressional pensions to members convicted of a felony, such as bribery.

In accordance with current law, the punishment will not be retroactive. That means former Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail on Friday for political corruption, would be able to keep his pension.

Republicans groused that much of the legislation so far had been jammed through the House without them getting a chance to shape it. But Democrats were delighted that many Republicans joined them in voting for the popular efforts.

They included legislation to raise the minimum wage, cut in half interest rates on federal student loans, reduce subsidies to big-oil companies, lower prescription drug prices and strengthen America's security.

While tougher fights are certain ahead on such matters as the Iraq war, global warming and immigration reform, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed the early accomplishments.

"These successes are just the beginning. We have set a tone for the 110th Congress that is one of cooperation, consensus and compromise," said Pelosi, a California Democrat.