House Democrats yesterday opted to keep their current leadership for the next Congress, while House Republicans voted to change their internal rules in an attempt to ensure that their team is not disrupted.
The House Republican caucus altered a 10-year-old rule requiring a leader who is indicted to relinquish his post. The move comes amid concern that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay might be indicted by a Texas prosecutor who has indicted two of Mr. DeLay’s top associates in connection with a battle over congressional redistricting in that state.
Democrats never had any rule similar to the Republican measure, which was one of several reforms adopted after the Republican Party captured control of Congress in 1994.
Republicans said yesterday’s change was not specifically instituted to protect Mr. DeLay, but described the old rule as an invitation to politically motivated prosecutions by Democrats.
“Today’s rule change will lessen the possibility of political exploitations that disrupt our House leadership,” said Rep. Henry Bonilla, the Texas Republican who spearheaded the change. “Today’s rule change will take a weapon away from partisan, media-hungry legal hacks.”
The new version of the rule — approved by voice vote after hours of caucus debate and despite several dissenting votes — would require a leader or committee chairman to step down only if convicted of a crime. In the case of indicted leaders, the Republican Steering Committee would review the indictment and make recommendations to the Republican conference, which could opt to act.
“It’s not up to some Democratic district attorney in Texas to make that decision; it’s up to the conference,” said Mr. DeLay, Texas Republican.
Republicans, however, weren’t unanimous on the change.
“I totally respect our leadership, top to bottom, but this sends the wrong message,” said Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican who voted against the rule change.
“I would have a hard time going to a community meeting and defending what we just did in this room,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican.
He called yesterday’s rule change an “erosion” of Republican promises to abide by “a higher standard.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out press releases in 27 congressional districts yesterday, asking Republican members to explain why they supported the rule change.
“Today, Republicans sold their collective soul to maintain their grip on power,” said Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.
Mr. Hoyer, meanwhile, was re-elected to his post unanimously yesterday by House Democrats, as was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Democrats expressed confidence in their House leaders despite Election Day losses.
“We’re doing a lot of soul-searching … but we are united,” said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat. “We have to make some changes, but not in leadership.”
“You don’t fire the coach after the first home game,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat.
But some Democrats said they will be watching to see whether their leaders truly institute change.
Democratic leaders need to examine the question of “what in our message are people not getting,” said Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., Tennessee Democrat, adding that the party should offer alternatives instead of just criticizing Republicans.
“It’s important for our leaders to address that,” Mr. Ford said. “If they can’t … you will see many of us emerge as the messengers.”
He said Democrats are right on the issues, but must better grasp the motives of voters in the South and Midwest and alter their message accordingly. Many voters strongly oppose same-sex “marriage,” for instance, not because they want to discriminate, but because they feel it’s a family issue, Mr. Ford said.
Mr. Wynn agreed that Democats must learn how to “frame our message in a way that has appeal to rural voters, Southern voters and voters that have concern with moral values.”