- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2005

House Republicans retreated last night on the changes that they made earlier this year to the rules that govern how the chamber’s ethics committee investigates complaints against members.

In a 406-20 vote last night, the House overwhelmingly returned the ethics committee to last year’s rules, with full support from Republican Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

All 197 Democrats who voted last night were joined by 208 Republicans and one independent in supporting the reversal. All 20 “no” votes were cast by Republicans.

“The speaker today has done the right thing,” Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, said before the vote. “The speaker has made a tough decision. It can’t be easy for him to come to this, but, again, it’s the right thing to do.”

The move ends a months-long impasse on the ethics committee, where Democrats had refused to meet until the rules — passed in January on a party-line vote — were reversed.

But earlier this month, Mr. DeLay told The Washington Times that Democrats were stalling the ethics panel not only because they didn’t want to give him a chance to clear himself of charges that he has accepted payment for travel from registered lobbyists, but also to protect their colleague, Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington.

Mr. McDermott lost a federal lawsuit that accused him of passing along an illegally taped 1997 telephone conversation. In an October ruling on that suit, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan said Mr. McDermott’s “willful and knowing misconduct rises to the level of malice in this case.”

Republicans maintained last night that the old rules are flawed and should be changed but said that it was even more important to have an operating ethics committee.

“I believe that the ethics process should be above partisan politics,” Mr. Hastert wrote in a letter yesterday to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“Since sincere and repeated offers to address the concerns raised by you and Mr. Mollohan have been rebuffed, I propose that the House return to the ethics rules under which we operated in the last Congress, leaving the unfairness inherent in the old system in place,” the Illinois Republican said.

Mr. DeLay himself agreed with the change, saying last night that “this House needs an ethics committee, I personally need an ethics committee … and I’m looking forward to” having his case heard.

After the decision to revert back to old rules was made public, Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, issued a press release saying the committee should operate “without partisan rancor.”

“The decision of the Republican leadership to abandon its misguided attempt to change bipartisan ethics rules is a victory for the American people,” she said.

In his letter to Mrs. Pelosi, Mr. Hastert lamented that the new rules would be scrapped and said he hopes the committee will revisit the possibility of making some changes.

“These common-sense reforms, which the minority made no attempt to change or eliminate in the motion to recommit during the adoption of the rules, have sadly been twisted and distorted and used as political fodder,” Mr. Hastert said.

Charges of ethics violations have swirled around Mr. DeLay for months, but only Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut has demanded his resignation in anger, calling Mr. DeLay “an embarrassment to me and to the Republican Party.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado has said it “may be a productive move” for Mr. DeLay to take a “temporary” leave of absence as majority leader, but only because it would let Mr. DeLay reject “these trumped-up charges.”

Public support among Republican leaders has not slipped. Earlier this week, President Bush invited Mr. DeLay to ride in Air Force One from Texas back to the District.

“I appreciate the leadership of Congressman Tom DeLay in working on important issues that matter to the country,” Mr. Bush said Monday.

The ethics fight even spilled over into the Senate chamber this week where Minority Leader Harry Reid compared Republican efforts to unclog Democratic filibusters against some of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees to the rules change in the House.

“Across the way in the House of Representatives, the majority leader was censured three times within one year,” Mr. Reid said. “He will not be censured again because they changed the rules in the middle of the game. That is what’s going on.”

The most hotly debated rules change was the first, which required that ethics complaints expire after 45 days if the committee did not rule by then.

Republicans said the change was needed because they said the process allowed Democrats to file complaints and stall, thus leaving the subject of the complaint hanging in “limbo” endlessly. Democrats said the change would encourage committee members to avoid tough votes by letting complaints expire.

The second rules change would have allowed members to be have any attorney of their choosing, a move Democrats had criticized as allowing witnesses and targets to collude more easily by having the same lawyer. The final change required that any member named who isn’t a case’s primary target be informed and given an opportunity to respond.

Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican, assured the House during last night’s debate that no partisan witch hunts would occur.

“No investigation has ever been taken by the committee without bipartisan support,” said Mr. Hastings, the ethics panel chairman.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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