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Ethics Logjam Rolls On

The stalemate over three new House ethics rules adopted at the start of the 109th Congress continued Wednesday, although signs emerged that GOP leaders may now be seeking a way out of the deadlock.

During a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the ethics committee, a proposal by ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) to set up a special bipartisan task force to study ethics rules was defeated by a tie vote of the equally divided panel, with Republicans and Democrats splitting along partisan lines.

“It did not pass. It did not have a majority,” said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the ethics committee.

Hastings said he was committed to finding a solution to the partisan battle that has paralyzed the committee, although he admitted that the effort was not going well. “We are trying to find some common ground,” he said. “I’m not going to say it’s something exceptionally easy to do.”

Earlier on Wednesday, in a private meeting between the two lawmakers, Hastings offered two proposals designed to end the partisan logjam.

According to both GOP and Democratic sources, Hastings proposed that the ethics committee be given 90 days to examine a complaint before agreeing on how to dispose of it. Under the rules adopted in January, the committee now has 45 days to review a complaint before deciding how to proceed.

More significantly, Hastings suggested that he and Mollohan conclude a “gentleman’s agreement” stating that no complaint would be dismissed without a vote by the panel.

Under the current rules, a complaint would be dismissed unless a majority of the committee votes to pursue it.

Mollohan rejected both proposals, the sources said, although in an interview, the West Virginian declined to comment directly on his talks with Hastings.

Mollohan’s position is that he is not negotiating with Hastings or the GOP leadership on ethics rules until the revisions adopted in January are overturned. Mollohan’s concerns are as much procedural as substantive: The Democrat vehemently objects to the fact that ethics rules revisions were pushed through the House by the GOP leadership on the first day of this session without consulting Democrats or even Republicans on the ethics committee.

Only when those revisions — the most important of which requires a majority vote in the ethics committee before a full-blown investigation can begin — are reversed will Mollohan agree to any bipartisan discussions on rule changes. Until that point is reached, Mollohan and the other four Democrats on the ethics committee will refuse to allow it to organize for this Congress, a move that essentially brings all committee action to a halt.

When asked whether he would negotiate with Hastings over changing ethics rules, Mollohan said, “That is not my intention — that is not where I am.” Mollohan added that he was urging his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to return to a “bipartisan process” of consultation and debate over ethics standards before any resolution is brought before the House to alter them.

Hastings also would not comment on any of the proposals he made to Mollohan, other than to acknowledge that they are continuing to meet and review their positions. ‘We have discussed a variety of things,” Mollohan said.

Democrats have raised yet another concern about the ethics committee — one mentioned in a private letter from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) earlier this week, according to several sources familiar with the document.

According to Democrats, Republicans want to alter the traditional bipartisan makeup of ethics committee staff so that each side has their own “staff director” or top aide on the panel. Under the current structure of ethics committee staff, there is only one staff director — usually an expert in the field of the Congressional ethics requirements who reports to both sides. Traditionally, the staff director has been able to offer an objective, non-partisan reading of ethics cases to members of the committee.

Hastings dismissed the Democratic concerns over the makeup of the staff as overblown.

“I know there are those on the other side hoping I would just sit back and let the committee staff run itself, but I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint them,” said Hastings in a statement released by his office. “Their argument that having a chief of staff at the committee will politicize the process is nonsense — the committee’s rules explicitly require every staffer, including Mr. Mollohan’s and my designees, to handle all committee business in a thoroughly nonpartisan manner. I intend to see that they do.”

Hastert had not formally responded to Pelosi’s letter at press time, although a response was expected to be sent either late Wednesday night or this morning. Hastert was ready to refute the charges laid out in Pelosi’s letter, said Republican sources.

Hastert, who was released from the hospital on Tuesday after a brief illness, exhorted his Republican colleagues at a GOP Conference meeting on Wednesday not to buckle under complaints from Democrats or the media on ethics, especially calls for an investigation of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who is under fire for overseas travel and his ties to embattled Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The Speaker told Republicans that they should focus on their own legislative agenda, including an upcoming energy bill, and worry about issues like lowering gasoline process, rather than getting bogged down in an all-out ethics war, said several sources who attended the meeting.

Hastings followed Hastert at the meeting, offering an update of the ethics committee fight. Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the former ethics chairman who Hastert chose to replace earlier this year, then disputed Hastings’ version of what has occurred to the ethics panel, although other Republicans subsequently backed Hastert, DeLay and the rest of the leadership in their handling of these matters, the sources said.

Speaking at his regular session with reporters Wednesday, DeLay again expressed a desire to lay out his case before the ethics committee in order to clear his name. The panel cannot grant his request since it has not officially organized.

When asked why the changes in ethics committee rules were implemented in the first place, DeLay made a point of emphasizing that it was Hastert who had engineered the changes. “The Speaker saw the abuse of the ethics process over the last two years,” DeLay said. “The Speaker addressed this problem [in order to] keep the ethics process from being abused.”

Asked what would happen if the ethics committee is unable to organize, DeLay said, “I hope they will. I hope they understand that if they’re not organized, it must be for political purposes.”

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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