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GOP Still Wary of War Over Ethics

With the two parties now trading allegations of impropriety on a near-daily basis, the House could be moving toward what many Republican strategists fear is a political trap: a full-fledged ethics war.

As the media has intensified its scrutiny of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), his GOP colleagues have scrambled to put his behavior in context by providing examples of Democrats taking questionable trips and doing alleged favors for big donors.

While that strategy may help the party blunt attacks on DeLay in the short term, some GOP strategists on and off Capitol Hill worry that they are playing into Democrats’ hands. According to this theory, if Congress grinds to a halt amid partisan bickering, the party in power will bear the brunt of the blame.

Republicans have done well to avoid such ethics fights over the last several years, argued one strategist close to the GOP leadership, and “I don’t think that’s changed” even in the current environment.

The strategist said that at best, Republicans have nothing to gain from such a battle, and at worst, they could take a hit next November.

Last year, Democrats mounted a sustained effort to pressure the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct into investigating allegations that GOP leaders had threatened then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) during the 2003 Medicare prescription drug vote.

At the time, while some Republicans warned darkly of possible retaliation against Democratic leaders, most senior GOP officials agreed that a full-fledged ethics war would likely have disastrous consequences for the party.

And when then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) eventually filed a voluminous complaint against DeLay, no Republican stepped up to file against Bell or any other Democrat.

Even if the two sides fought to a stalemate on a substantive level, many Republicans feared that their side would suffer at the polls because voters would likely blame the party in power if a partisan food fight broke out.

The last sustained House ethics war took place in the mid-1990s, when complaints were 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.

Republicans lost seats in 1996 and 1998, after Democrats were swept out of power in 1994 following a sustained wave of scandals and acrimony in the chamber.

Some Republican officials contend that those historical precedents don’t apply here, both because of the nature of the Democratic attacks and because they are confident the controversies surrounding DeLay don’t currently seem to be resonating much beyond the Beltway.

One senior Republican leadership aide argued that the calculus on ethics retaliation had changed due to “the sheer fact that it’s been such a one-sided battle.”

This aide and most others in senior GOP circles decided in recent weeks that they simply could not continue to withstand Democratic attacks without turning around and levelling charges of hypocrisy.

“Our credibility is being undermined,” said the aide. “This is the PR environment we’re in.”

In recent weeks, Republicans have been digging through the travel records of Democratic Members and shopping the results to reporters in the hopes of making the point that DeLay is being excoriated for something that is common Congressional practice.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, has sent out regular e-mails full of links to stories cataloguing alleged misdeeds by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

While the DeLay stories have been prominently featured in major newspapers and on television news, few in the GOP believe that the issue is penetrating voters’ minds, particularly since the next election is still more than 18 months away.

“There are no political implications from this,” said a Republican campaign strategist, arguing that it would take a much larger wave of scandals for most voters to begin considering voting their incumbent Representative out of office.

“In order for any of this to gain steam you have to have some sort of grass-roots traction,” added the strategist. “We’re continuing to get stuff done. It’s not like Congress has stopped. It’s not like Congress is crippled.”

Indeed, even as they attempt a counterattack on the ethics front, House Republicans are spending this week highlighting the expected passage of an energy bill. They also plan to redouble their efforts on Social Security next month.

Of course, all those efforts could be put on the back burner if the ethics committee is ever able to organize and Members file a flurry of complaints against one another. For now, though, even some Republicans who are wary of another ethics war believe that the party is using the only tactic it can to combat the focus on DeLay.

As one strategist who has worked closely with the GOP leadership put it, “I don’t think they have a choice.”

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