Friday, April 15, 2005

Democrats said yesterday that they will continue to block the House ethics committee from meeting — leaving Majority Leader Tom DeLay under a cloud of ethics accusations — because of their opposition to new ethics panel rules passed by the full House.

They insisted, however, that their stalling was not aimed at Mr. DeLay, who charged Wednesday that the Democrats’ action was a partisan move also intended to protect a Democratic congressman involved in the illegal taping of a Republican member’s cell-phone conversation.

“It is not about Democrats not cooperating,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters yesterday. “It is about Republicans gutting the process to a point that any participation would be an accomplice to undermining an ethical standard in the House.”

Democratic leaders also denied Mr. DeLay’s assertion that their refusal to organize the committee is related to protecting Rep. Jim McDermott, the Washington Democrat who also faces ethical charges over the taping incident.

“The economy is reaching a soft patch, we have interest rates going up, and Mr. DeLay is blaming his problems on another member of Congress,” Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, said in response to comments Mr. DeLay made Wednesday in an interview with The Washington Times. “I think the record speaks for itself.”

Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, because of his position as top Democrat on the House ethics committee, yesterday refused to answer any questions specifically about Mr. DeLay. However, the West Virginian addressed in general terms several of the accusations Mr. DeLay leveled against Democrats.

Mr. DeLay charged Democrats with using the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct as the only political weapon they have left to attack him and, by extension, the entire Republican agenda.

“This is the Democrats’ agenda,” Mr. DeLay said Wednesday. “They don’t have an agenda.”

Mr. Mollohan said their refusal to convene the committee stems entirely from the Republican insistence on changing rules on the committee’s operation.

“There couldn’t be anything more partisan than how these rules were adopted,” said Mr. Mollohan, adding that the ethics committee can work fairly and effectively only if it is devoid of the partisan rancor that lords over most House proceedings.

“If the minority allows itself to participate in a fiction of this magnitude,” he said, it would undermine the ethics process and set a precedent allowing the majority to unilaterally control the rules of the ethics committee. “It’s a very fundamental principle.”

Among the rules changes the House approved Jan. 4 — in a 220-195 vote, with no Democrats in favor of the change — two have been most contentious.

The first rule places a limit on the amount of time the committee may consider an ethics case before it is summarily dismissed. Mr. DeLay said that under the old rules, Democrats would trap an accused Republican member in a “limbo” for an unlimited period before exonerating him. Mr. Mollohan said those limits damage any hopes of a thorough investigation.

The second contentious rule gives a member — and witnesses — greater latitude in choosing an attorney. Mr. DeLay said that is a basic matter of due process. Mr. Mollohan said it will allow the accused and witnesses to hire the same lawyer, which would allow for greater collaboration among subjects of an investigation.

A spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said the new rules were crucial to bringing bipartisanship to the ethics committee.

“Democrats need to stop using the ethics process as a political football, and join Republicans in a bipartisan way to let the ethics committee operate,” said spokesman Ron Bonjean. “The Democrats are using their complaints of the rules changes as political cover to use the ethics process as a political football.”

About three-quarters of the way into her weekly press conference yesterday, which was dominated by ethics questions, Mrs. Pelosi tried changing the subject.

“But this is taking up too much time,” she said. “I am very proud of Democrats and what they have done in town meetings across the country, inoculating the public against the unwise privatization of Social Security that the president is advocating, that they are talking in very strong words about having pay-as-you-go as our budget so that we reduce the deficit and do not further impact the solvency of Social Security.”

After listing a few other planks of the Democratic agenda, she summed up by saying that the minority party wants to take America to a place “where we have accountability — accountability in our budget and accountability in our ethical standards.”

• Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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