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House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Monday he will for a third time call on Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to urge the ethics committee to investigate alleged House floor bribery, but if the Republican leader continues to balk, he vowed Democrats will be forced to file a complaint.

Hoyer said he will reach out to Hastert this week to reiterate his request for the Speaker to urge the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to look into whether GOP Members or lobbyists tried to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to change his vote on last November’s Medicare bill.

“If we do not have a committee which will pursue allegations of wrongdoing, we’ll have no other alternative except in the case of an individual Member making a complaint,” Hoyer said in an interview. “We have no other alternative but to rely on that process.”

Democratic leaders have called on the ethics panel to initiate an investigation on its own on the matter, but Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) has so far refused.

The No. 2 House Democrat said he has received no responses from the Speaker, to whom he penned a letter late last month on the matter. Hoyer followed up with a phone call to Hastert on Friday.

The Minority Whip has been raising concerns for weeks on the Smith incident, as well as on other allegations of unethical behavior by Republicans.

Hoyer said he is hopeful Hastert will agree the Smith matter is worthy of a nonpartisan ethics inquiry, and call on the panel to investigate. But Hoyer said he had “not been led to any degree of optimism by the initial responses,” and thus House Democrats might have to go to the committee on their own.

Hastert’s office is still in the process of deciding how — or if — to respond to Hoyer’s recent letter. Several Republican leadership staffers said they felt Democrats had already tipped their hand and revealed their true intentions by openly portraying the letter as an opening salvo in a political campaign.

“It was shocking that the Democrats would admit this was part of their political strategy,” one GOP aide said of Monday’s stories on the matter in Roll Call and The New York Times. “They fully concede that it’s part of an election-year push.”

One senior Democratic aide said a filing would focus not on wrongdoing by an individual Member, but on Smith’s own allegations following the Medicare vote.

According to published reports, Smith charged that GOP leaders and lobbyists promised money and support to his son’s Congressional campaign in exchange for his ‘yes’ vote on the Medicare bill. Smith, who is retiring, has since backed away from the allegations.

If Democrats pursue an ethics inquiry, it would effectively sideline the two parties’ seven-year cease fire over filing complaints. The truce has been in place since 1997 as a result of a tit-for-tat ethics battle that followed clashes over Democratic allegations against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Hoyer, an institutionalist with solid relationships on both sides of the aisle, said he went to Hastert because it is in both parties’ interest that legitimate allegations are pursued, and because the Speaker “has a responsibility to protect the honesty and integrity of the House.”

Hoyer conceded he is worried that if an individual Democratic Member files an ethics complaint, it could reignite the war between the two parties.

“Clearly that is a concern,” Hoyer said. “That’s why I was hopeful the ethics committee would pursue it or [Hastert] would direct it to do it.”

Senior GOP sources said that it was by no means a foregone conclusion that they would retaliate if a Democrat does step forward and file a complaint regarding the Smith incident.

While Republicans feel confident that they have plenty of ammunition should an ethics war ensue — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) were the most oft-mentioned potential targets — they also believe it might be wiser strategically to simply ignore a Democratic complaint and continue pushing forward with their legislative agenda.

“It’s not necessarily in our best interests to play that game,” said a senior GOP leadership aide, though the aide cautioned that no decisions on how to respond to a complaint would be made until the leaders and the full Republican Conference discussed the issue.

Hoyer said it would be “unfortunate” if Democrats are pressed to go to the ethics panel themselves. He added that he doesn’t know which Democrat would make the filing, though senior-level sources throughout the Caucus say it would be a rank-and-file Member rather than a leader.

Hoyer said before that step is taken, however, he wants to speak directly with Hastert, as well as Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the ranking member on the ethics committee.

“I don’t want to make any judgments until I do that,” he said.

Hoyer said he did not know whether Democrats on the ethics committee had yet pushed for an investigation internally. The committee operates in secret, and the cases it considers are kept largely under wraps.

The Minority Whip also said he could not speak to the timing of a possible ethics filing, but did say House Democrats “need to come to grips with it very soon.”

Well-placed Democratic aides say a complaint could be filed in the coming weeks, but Members first will exhaust all other options to persuade Republicans to act. That could include a Member offering a privileged resolution, calling for an ethics probe.

“It’s not time-sensitive in that if it doesn’t come up this week people aren’t going to go away, our ability to pursue it isn’t going to go away,” Hoyer said. “On the other hand, the longer this goes the less likely it is the public is going to think we have any procedures in place to look into allegations.”

Beyond Smith, House Democrats are engaging in a broader strategy focusing on what they charge is a “pattern of corruption” by the majority party. Democrats also have raised concerns about Republican leaders’ “K Street Project” to install Republicans in key lobbying posts.

Democrats have also raised questions about the fact that Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) has reportedly negotiated a lucrative job running the pharmaceutical industry’s trade association after overseeing passage of the Medicare bill.

Republicans claimed that the parallels between Democrats’ current efforts and the GOP campaign to take the majority in 1994 are misguided. While Republicans did employ ethics charges as political weapons 10 years ago, they also coupled those allegations with an alternative agenda embodied in the “Contract with America” and other items.

Now, Republicans argue, Democrats are hoping to tar the GOP as being unethical without offering a compelling vision of how they would govern differently.

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