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GOP’s Fear of Losing Precludes Ethics War

Despite ominous predictions of a pending war coming from both sides of the aisle, no Republican has retaliated against Rep. Chris Bell (Texas) or any other Democrat in the month since the lame-duck lawmaker filed an ethics complaint against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Publicly, Republican lawmakers have explained their lack of a response by dismissing Bell’s 187-page complaint as “frivolous” and a symptom of Democrats’ alleged inability to craft a substantive agenda.

But privately, many GOP Members and aides said they have reached a strategic conclusion: If there’s an ethics war, they can’t win.

“The prevailing attitude is that if you throw mud on each other the institution gets tarred and that doesn’t help us,” explained a senior Republican leadership aide.

Stories about a fractious House too busy squabbling to pass important legislation would presumably reflect badly on both parties. But some Republicans believe that a partisan food fight would have far more dire consequences for their side of the aisle, as voters would be inclined to blame the majority for its inability to control the chamber.

Recent history suggests those fears are well-founded. Voters penalized Democrats in historic fashion in 1994 following a steady stream of scandals and a GOP emphasis on the idea that Democrats had been corrupted by power.

But when ethics battles heated up in the mid-1990s — with complaints filed against DeLay, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), then-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), among others — voters seemed to blame the GOP, which lost seats in 1996 and 1998.

As Republicans see it, then, an ethics war would carry risks for them that it wouldn’t for Democrats.

“They have nothing to lose,” said a senior GOP leadership aide.

DeLay himself has said publicly that he does not want any of his colleagues to fire back. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) proposed a change in House rules soon after Bell’s filing that would prevent lame-duck Members from lodging ethics complaints, but that proposal drew little support from Republican leaders.

From a communications standpoint, the lack of any GOP retaliation against Bell has prevented the initial burst of press coverage that accompanied the Democrat’s filing from blooming into a weeks-long scandal story.

If a Republican had responded by filing against a Democrat, the back-and-forth between the two sides could have dragged on for the rest of the session, with the public unable to distinguish which complaints were frivolous and which had merit.

Instead, while DeLay’s activities during Texas redistricting are still in the news, Bell’s complaint has received little attention since it was filed, as the situation in Iraq, the presidential campaign and hot-button issues like the gay marriage amendment have served to push most other political stories off the front page.

Responsible stewardship of the House was an integral part of the Republican campaign message in 1994 and still surfaces in the party’s efforts today, particularly when the GOP suggests that Democrats have no substantive agenda and are unprepared to lead.

Democrats have countered that argument by lumping DeLay’s activities in with what they perceive to be the GOP’s abuse of power in the House to make a broader argument — one that looks familiar to Republicans who hammered similar themes before they won control in 1994.

“The Democrats’ goal for the fall [elections] is an ‘unethical majority’ message,” said a senior Republican Member.

For their part, Democrats have steadfastly denied that Bell’s complaint was part of any coordinated strategy, though they acknowledge that they have made the same calculation their opponents have in concluding that an ethics war would hurt Republicans.

“I think there’s that opinion on our side as well,” said a Democratic leadership aide.

Even as they explain why no Republican has taken retaliatory action, GOP strategists caution that the current cease-fire isn’t necessarily permanent.

“You can’t take that to an extreme either,” said a GOP leadership aide, “because you can’t just let people file frivolous election complaints.”