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Just hours before the deadlocked ethics committee convened behind closed doors Wednesday, Democrats used the House floor as their latest venue to lambaste Republicans for abusing their power and gutting the chamber’s ability to self-police.

Five House Democrats delivered the first in an ongoing series of floor speeches condemning the GOP’s handling of the ethics process, including its revamp of the committee’s rules at the start of the 109th Congress.

The move is part of a larger strategy by the minority party, kicked off Wednesday, to paint the Republicans as a party corrupted by power and influence, and willing to go to extremes to insulate themselves from investigation.

“This is the first time in this Congress the ethics debate is being brought to the House floor, and it’s going to stay there,” said one senior Democratic House aide.

From the floor, House Democrats talked broadly about the ethics rule changes, noting how they protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has come under fire in recent months over lobbyist-paid overseas trips and other allegations of questionable ethics.

“Currently, a member of the Republican leadership is at the center of a troubling array of investigations into corruption, abuse of power and ethics violations,” said Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.). “Instead of being forthright and open to these allegations, the Republican leadership has stripped the ethical rules of this institution to cater and protect one of their own.”

Republicans pushed through three rules changes at the beginning of the session, with the most significant being a provision requiring a majority vote to initiate an investigation. The committee has been at a standstill for more than a month because Democrats won’t agree to allow the committee to organize with the new rules in place.

House leadership is planning to assign a group of Members each week to use floor time to take after Republicans on the ethics issue. Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), who is coordinating the House Democrats’ floor effort, said Members are frustrated with ongoing GOP overreaches. By speaking in the chamber, he said in an interview, Democrats are hoping to “exert some pressure on Republicans to restore the bipartisan rules to the ethics committee.”

Pallone added, “I have no doubt that the rules change in the ethics committee was in an effort to protect Tom DeLay. There’s no question this was all about that. But the whole thing is bigger than Tom DeLay, and they shouldn’t be changing the rules just to protect him.”

Rules Committee ranking member Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), who also took part in the Wednesday floor speeches, accused the Republicans of creating a “dark cloud of corruption” over the House. She repeated a call for her committee to hold a bipartisan hearing on the revised ethics rules.

“This House cannot function without an open, accountable and independent ethics process,” she said. “And molestation of that process by the majority is an abuse of power that cannot stand.”

Reps. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Jim McGovern (Mass.) also gave speeches Wednesday. Those Members’ remarks came just as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) held a joint press event to kick off the party’s broad offensive alleging Republican abuse of power.

“For Democrats, this issue epitomizes what’s wrong with the Republican Party and why we think that Americans will come to reject them,” said one senior Democratic aide. “They are not focused on what’s good for the average American.”

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