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Mollohan Firm on Ethics Fight

Wednesday Breakthrough Unlikely

With the standoff over the House ethics committee now entering its second month, the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), is standing firm in his bid to overturn three controversial ethics rules changes pushed through the House by GOP leaders on the first day of the 109th Congress.

The ethics committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday, after a weeklong postponement due to Pope John Paul II’s funeral and the resulting disruption of the House schedule. Though this week’s meeting is likely to happen as planned, there is little sign of any movement that could allow the panel to carry out its official duties.

The ethics committee meeting comes as White House officials reiterated President Bush’s support for embattled Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on Monday.

“Majority Leader DeLay is someone the president considers a friend. And he is someone he has worked closely with to get things done in Washington,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement to reporters at Bush’s Texas ranch.

House Democrats, angry over the rules changes, have blocked the ethics committee from organizing for this session, meaning that the panel can take no action on new or existing cases and is not even allowed to dispense advice to lawmakers. The committee also needs to find a new staff director because the old one, John Vargo, was pushed out by Republicans earlier this year.

Mollohan and the Democrats are ready to offer a motion during Wednesday’s committee meeting that urges GOP and Democratic leaders to get personally involved in resolving the ethics dispute, possibly by appointing a bipartisan task force to look at January’s rule changes, several Democratic sources said.

The new motion is similar to a privileged resolution that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered on the House floor on March 15. That resolution was defeated by a 223-194 vote, with only GOP Rep. Joel Hefley (Colo.) crossing the aisle to vote with Democrats. Hefley was replaced by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as ethics chairman in early February.

In an interview on Monday, Mollohan said he has not lessened his opposition to the rules changes, the most important of which declares that the ethics panel can begin an investigation of a Member only when there is a majority vote in favor of a probe. The old rule, devised by a bipartisan task force in 1997, stipulated that an investigation begins automatically if the chairman and ranking member cannot agree on how to dispose of a case following a three-month review period.

“There has been no change in my effort to move this process along, which I initiated by filing a resolution to change the rules that the majority leadership is attempting to oppose on the ethics committee in stark violation of the bipartisan tradition of adopting rules for the bipartisan ethics committee,” Mollohan said.

Mollohan is also attempting to overturn two other GOP-drafted rules changes that address how the ethics panel handles potential penalties and whether lawyers can represent more than one person before the committee at a time.

Mollohan said he has discussed this issue with Republican colleagues on the House floor, although he said there have been no substantive discussions yet with Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the ethics committee, or with GOP leaders on the issue. (Hastings could not be reached for comment for this article.)

Mollohan’s resolution, which is being co-sponsored by 206 Democrats and two Republicans, was introduced March 1. After 30 legislative days, which should be reached later this month, Mollohan will then seek to offer a discharge petition. Two hundred eighteen votes are required to bring such a petition to the House floor.

Hefley and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) have signaled their support for Mollohan’s resolution, although Shays — who over the weekend was quoted saying he thinks DeLay should step down — has said he will not vote for a discharge petition.

Mollohan also wrote to Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) last week, asking for a hearing in that panel on his resolution. The measure officially has been referred for action to the Rules subcommittee on rules and organization of the House, a panel chaired by Hastings. Mollohan believes the issue he has raised in his resolution is of such importance that it deserves a hearing in Rules.

Republicans privately describe no change in position on the ethics rules changes. Hastert wanted to meet with Mollohan to discuss the West Virginia Democrat’s concerns, but Mollohan went public with his resolution before that meeting could take place, and Hastert subsequently canceled it.

With DeLay in the middle of a political crisis over his dealings with former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and overseas trips, GOP leaders see the ethics committee battle as part of a Democratic master plan to recapture the House and are unwilling to concede any ground on the rules changes.

“We are not changing anything, not right now,” a top House Republican staffer said Monday. “We will stay right where we are for the moment.”

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