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GOP Blinks on Ethics Changes

Retreating in the face of a political furor and trepidation within their ranks, House GOP leaders surprisingly reversed themselves Monday night and reinstituted a party rule that requires any member of the leadership who is indicted to step down from his or her post. The rule change was originally made in late 2004 to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who is under investigation for his role in influencing 2002 state legislative races in Texas.

Republicans also backed down from a proposed change to House rules that would have prevented the ethics committee from punishing any Member who brings discredit on the House but does not violate a specific law or regulation. The ethics committee often cites the catch-all authority in House Rule XXIII, the official “Code of Conduct,” in its rulings critical of lawmakers’ conduct.

After weeks of political attacks from Democrats and government watchdog groups, DeLay himself offered the proposal to restore GOP Conference rules on indicted leaders during a meeting of all House Republicans on Monday night. It was accepted unanimously.

“[DeLay] felt that the arguments made this fall were still legitimate, but that the best thing for us was to restore the old rule and deny Democrats their lone issue,” said Jonathan Grella, DeLay’s spokesman.

Another top House GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the reasons for the abrupt about-face were obvious. “The unsophisticated, transparent game the Democrats want to play, we will not partake in it,” said the GOP aide. Democrats from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) down had been bashing Republicans on the indictment rule change since it was adopted Nov. 17.

Democrats immediately claimed a political victory Monday night.

“Even for the Republicans, it was too hot for them to handle,” said Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s spokesman. “It was really unthinkable that their first act after the election was to weaken ethics standards.”

As for the changes to ethics rules and the use of Official Code of Conduct in ethics investigations, there was significant opposition from within GOP ranks, as well as from Democrats and outside groups.

Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, came out publicly against the proposed rule change.

“I am opposed to the ethics provisions in the draft rules package circulated by the Rules Committee and intend to vote against it on the House floor tomorrow,” Hefley said in a statement released by his office Monday afternoon. Hefley was travelling and could not attend Monday night’s GOP Conference meeting, where he was scheduled to offer two amendments aimed at blocking the rules changes.

Hefley, who has acknowledged as valid some GOP criticism of the ethics process, added: “However, this is not the way to effect meaningful reform. Ethics reform must be bipartisan and this package is not bipartisan. If the House is to have a meaningful, bipartisan ethics process, changes of this magnitude can be made — as they were made in 1997 and 1989 — only after thoughtful, careful consideration on a bipartisan basis.”

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) also came out against the proposal to alter the use of the official Code of Conduct standard.

“I think there are some in leadership who think they can do anything they want,” Shays said before the leadership reversal. “[DeLay] should say this is crazy, this is hurting our party.”

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) defended the proposal, one of several that GOP leaders want to implement to alter the ethics process.

Specifically, Hastert said he was uncomfortable with the idea that a lawmaker could be reprimanded for an “accumulation of conduct” without having specifically violated any written laws or House rules, as was the case with DeLay last year.

Members “need to know what the parameters are before they cross it,” Hastert told reporters Monday afternoon.

Hastert is expected to make an announcement later this week that he will replace Hefley as ethics chairman, a position in which he is up against term limits but could be granted a waiver, and the Colorado Republican’s opposition to the ethics revisions is another sign that his ouster from the panel is imminent, according to GOP insiders.

In the wake of high-profile investigations of DeLay last year, House GOP leaders have been seeking to modify the ethics rules in ways that will make it more difficult for Members or the committee itself to consider “frivolous” complaints or initiate probes.

Hastert said he was familiar with another proposal offered by Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) that would allow the ethics committee to rebuke Members in private letters, unlike the public admonishments DeLay received. Hastert said the entire Conference would “talk about and look at” the issue during a meeting last night.

It was expected that LaTourette’s proposal was going to be substantially revised or withdrawn during the Republican gathering, according to GOP sources.

The rules package to be offered by Republican leaders today will include a proposal to create a permanent Homeland Security Committee, altering the status of the existing panel, currently a “select” committee established under Hastert’s authority and due to expire at the end of the 108th Congress. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) is expected to retain his chairmanship of the panel. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) is in line to take over the Republican Policy Committee from Cox.

Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) are among those opposed to permanent status for the Homeland Security panel and are pushing for changes to limit its authority.

GOP conservatives, meanwhile, are lobbying for a series of changes to budget rules that would make it more difficult to increase federal spending, which has soared since President Bush took office. Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) is opposed to a provision in the rules package calling for the creation of a joint committee with the Senate to review the Congressional budget process.

But the ethics revisions are by far the highest-profile changes to House rules slated to be unveiled Tuesday.

Chief among them was to be a revision to the use of Rule XXIII of the House, which requires Members to conduct themselves “at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.” The original proposed rule revision would have prohibited the use of this language as authority for the ethics committee to take action against a lawmaker when no specific violations of other rules or laws are found. The ethics committee employed that authority to admonish DeLay last year following a complaint by former Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas).

In addition, GOP leaders want to rewrite an ethics rule that triggers an automatic investigation if the chairman and ranking member cannot agree on how to handle a complaint. Under current ethics committee rules, the chairman and ranking member have up to 90 days to conduct such a review, and an investigative subcommittee is triggered if they fail to agree on what step to take. The new proposal would alter that rule so that the full committee must vote affirmatively to proceed with an investigation. This proposal was still expected to be included in Tuesday’s rules package.

Members would also be granted an additional opportunity to appear before the ethics committee if it finds a violation of the Code of Conduct, a change that Republicans say is needed to restore “the presumption of innocence” for lawmakers.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is also seeking to alter House gift rules so that Members and staff can take their spouses and minor children on official trips paid for by outside groups.

Democrats had planned to pounce on the proposed ethics rules changes as proof that Republicans have lost touch with the American people after 10 years in power and are under the control of powerful special-interest groups. Democratic insiders would not reveal what their leadership planned to do, and it is unclear what impact the Republican moves on Monday night would have. But Democrats were expected to focus on allegations of “corruption, ethics violations and hypocrisy” by the Republican majority, according to a senior House Democratic aide.

One House rules change that was approved by the GOP Conference on Monday night was a proposal by Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) to allow Members to include remarks on the Senate and Senators during floor debate. It has been a longstanding policy that Members can only refer to the “other body” during floor debate.

The other marquee move this week for House Republicans will be the Steering Committee’s selection of the next Appropriations chairman.

Three senior panel members — Reps. Ralph Regula (Ohio), Jerry Lewis (Calif.) and Hal Rogers (Ky.), in that order of seniority — are in the running to replace outgoing Chairman Bill Young (Fla.), who was forced by term limits to surrender the gavel.

All three lawmakers appeared before the Steering Committee on Monday afternoon, and a decision is expected of that panel by Wednesday, after which the entire Conference will vote on the chairman and subcommittee chairmen.

Amy Keller and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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