- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

House Republicans last night cut back their proposed ethics changes, scrapping plans to allow party members under indictment to hold party leadership posts and to change House rules to require a higher standard of wrongdoing to chastise any member.

The changes came during a closed-door Republican debate of the proposed House rules for the 109th Congress. The full House will vote on the rules package today.

With the backing of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, House Republicans unexpectedly reversed a caucus rule change, made late last year, giving the party’s steering committee discretion on whether an indicted leader stays or goes.

Mr. DeLay is under investigation by an Austin grand jury over fund raising in Texas politics, a probe he has dismissed as a partisan effort to use House ethics rules to force him out as majority leader.

Republicans agreed to return to their old caucus rule, which requires a party leader to relinquish his leadership post automatically if indicted.

Mr. DeLay said his party reversed last year’s decision in order “to take it off the table.”

A House Republican leadership aide said Democrats were planning to raise the issue during today’s floor debate and Republicans wanted to prevent that.

“The Democrats are using the politics of personal destruction and we’re not going to play their game,” Mr. DeLay said.

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, said, “It’s a mark of a leader to take a bullet for the team and not for the team to take a bullet for the leader. I’m very glad we decided to stick with the rules.”

Also, party leaders reversed themselves on ethics by scrapping a proposed change in the House rules to require that all members comply only with all applicable laws, regulations and rules.

Under current rules, the ethics panel can chastise a member for conduct that reflects poorly on the House, even if that conduct does not break laws or House rules — as happened to Mr. DeLay last year.

Republican leaders said members didn’t like the proposed change.

“After talking to our members … I think it was the wisest thing to do,” Mr. Hastert said.

Late last night, Republicans approved a rules change that would require a majority vote of the evenly divided committee to proceed with an investigation, meaning at least one member of a congressman’s own party would have to approve any probe.

Republicans voted to kill the current system, which automatically starts an investigation if the panel is tied and the two top committee leaders take no action on a complaint after 45 days.

The proposed Republican changes had been criticized widely by Democrats and watchdogs.

“Republicans in Washington talk a lot about ‘values,’ but weakening ethics rules does not represent American values,” said Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

But the Republican chairman of the House ethics panel also opposed the changes, saying that any ethics reform should be bipartisan.

“This is not the way to effect meaningful reform,” Rep. Joel Hefley, Colorado Republican, said of the proposed House rule changes.

Also yesterday, Republicans fought over rules on the budget, where party leaders turned back a challenge by conservatives who want new rules to help rein in spending.

“We think its absolutely critical that people understand the Republican Party is still committed to limited government,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican and member of the Republican Study Committee, which wanted the package to include several new provisions to discourage increased spending.

“This is our first opportunity to make a stand. It will in no way, shape or form be our last,” he said.

Mr. Hensarling and other members of the conservative study committee offered several proposals to make it more difficult for the House to boost spending. All were defeated.

Among the defeated proposals was a plan to require automatic roll-call votes on any bill costing more than $50 million. Another would allow members to object and force a three-fifths majority vote on any legislation that increases mandatory spending without providing any offsetting revenue.

Rep. Tom Feeney, Florida Republican, said party leaders supported the conservatives’ effort but didn’t think the rule-change proposals were the best means. Still, he said the conservatives made their point.

“We have a commitment on January 3 to do something about the lack of [fiscal] discipline,” he said.

Mr. Feeney said that during the last House Republican retreat, conservatives spent three days trying to convince party leaders and administration officials of the spending problem.

“I think they get that message now,” he said.

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