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Ethics Offer Rejected

House ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) announced Wednesday that he is prepared to launch an investigation into the activities of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as early as today if Democrats will cooperate and allow the panel to move forward and organize.

Hastings’ statement on DeLay was accompanied by a written proposal to compromise on the panel’s rules, an offer that was almost immediately dismissed as “inadequate” by ethics ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.). Democrats have blocked the organization of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in protest of the new set of panel rules implemented by the full House on a near party-line vote earlier this year.

Mollohan declined to address whether a probe of DeLay would be the right course of action, while Hastings suggested it would give the Majority Leader what he has been requesting: an opportunity to “state his case.”

“I am here today with three of my four colleagues on the ethics committee to announce that we are all prepared to vote at the earliest opportunity to empanel an investigation subcommittee to review allegations concerning travel and other actions by Mr. DeLay,” Hastings said, adding that he hoped the subcommittee could be formed at today’s full ethics panel meeting.

“Let me emphasize that this is an unusual and extraordinary step for the committee to take,” Hastings continued. “We have the authority under our rules to self-initiate an initial investigation based on information that comes to the committee’s attention through public and other sources. We would prefer to do that in Mr. DeLay’s case, but because the Democrats have refused to let the committee operate, we are prepared to move directly to an investigation subcommittee.”

Hastings said the proposed subcommittee would be chaired by Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), who joined Hastings at the press conference along with Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Judy Biggert (R-Ill.).

The fifth Republican on the ethics panel, Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), was not present at the press conference. Asked to explain his absence, Smith spokesman Blair Jones said, “The Congressman feels that he cannot comment on any matter before the ethics committee.”

Smith’s addition to the panel has been a source of controversy because he gave money to DeLay’s legal defense fund, as did Cole.

In a statement, DeLay said he appreciated the continuing effort to reach a compromise.

“I’ve sent letters to the committee asking to appear before the chairman and ranking member to discuss matters,” DeLay said. “And for more than a month I’ve said I hope for a fair process that will afford me the opportunity to get the facts out and set the record straight. I welcome the opportunity to address this with the committee.”

In his written proposal, Hastings again offered his personal guarantee that no complaint would be dismissed by the ethics panel without a vote. He also said he would be willing to grant extensions of at least three months beyond the 45 days the rules currently allow for the committee to consider a pending complaint.

Mollohan was polite but firm in his rejection of the proposal, praising the chairman for his fairness but insisting that the only way out of the impasse was the formation of a bipartisan task force to reconsider the chamber’s ethics rules.

Other Democrats were more blunt in their dismissal of the GOP offer.

“This proposal on the ethics process by the Republican leadership is a charade and an absolute non-starter with Democrats, who reject it out of hand,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

A Democratic leadership aide called the offer “laughable” and “a joke,” while another leadership aide said, “They are trying to put pressure on us. We are not going to bend. We’ve got the high ground here.”

But Republicans said that it was the Democrats who were guilty of politicizing the ethics process, and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) suggested that Democrats might have their own ethical problems to worry about.

“As long as the Democrats won’t let the ethics committee form they’ve got it both ways,” Hastert said on Sean Hannity’s radio show Wednesday. “Tom can’t go forward and can’t clear himself and then none of their Members can go before the ethics committee either. … There’s probably four or five cases out there dealing with top-level Democrats. There’s a reason they don’t want to go forward with the ethics process.”

For his part, Hastings expressed his unhappiness with Mollohan’s rejection of the “good-faith” offer he made last week and suggested a written agreement might be more persuasive.

“Taking note of your unwillingness to accept my assurances when sealed only by a handshake, I am prepared to execute a formal Memorandum of Understanding which could be signed by both of us and made public,” Hastings wrote in a letter to Mollohan.

Though Republicans portrayed Hastings’ offer as a genuine stab at compromise, Mollohan stressed that the real problem was the “patently partisan” and “fundamentally objectionable” process by which the committee’s rules were crafted.

While Democrats have pointed out that past revisions of ethics rules have always been drafted on a bipartisan basis, Republicans have argued that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took the first step toward poisoning the atmosphere when she met with Mollohan and other panel Democrats last year.

On a substantive level, Mollohan argued that Hastings’ guarantee of a vote on every complaint would not be sufficient. The West Virginian pointed out that the committee could have a 5-5, party-line vote on whether to initiate an investigation and the case would simply be dismissed when the allotted number of days expired.

Mollohan also reiterated his objection to a rules change that he said could allow one lawyer to represent every Member and witness involved in a particular case, raising the possibility of conflicts of interest.

Hastings’ and Mollohan’s dueling press conferences capped a long day of partisan bickering over the ethics issue.

The morning began with five Democrats — Reps. John Tierney (Mass.), Jay Inslee (Wash.), Bart Stupak (Mich.), Frank Pallone (N.J.) and Diane Watson (Calif.) — taking to the House floor to deliver one-minute speeches on the ethics issue.

Later, at his weekly pen-and-pad briefing, DeLay said, “The rules changes the Democrats are complaining about are the Speaker’s rules changes that I was not consulted about” and repeated the suggestion that Pelosi and her fellow Democrats were to blame for the impasse.

If a four-member investigative subcommittee on DeLay is empaneled, Hastings and Mollohan will designate a chairman — Hastings said he has already chosen Hart — and ranking member, with those two lawmakers selected from the full ethics committee. The remaining two members are chosen from a pool of lawmakers nominated by Hastert and Pelosi.

An investigative subcommittee has the power to issue subpoenas and take testimony under oath. Once the investigative subcommittee completes its work, it may adopt by majority vote a Statement of Alleged Violation if it finds a “substantial reason to believe” that House rules or federal law have been broken. The full ethics committee would then have to approve the subcommittee’s findings. If no violation is uncovered, the subcommittee issues a report to the full ethics committee on the case.

Late in the 108th Congress, an investigative subcommittee was appointed to look into Rep. Jim McDermott’s (D-Wash.) handling of an illegally recorded conversation in January 1997 between House GOP leaders.

That panel was set up in response to a complaint filed by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio). It has been the subject of a long legal battle between McDermott and Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), who was one of the Republicans recorded on the tape. That subcommittee is chaired by Biggert, with Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) as ranking member. All work on the McDermott investigation has been brought to a halt due to the current rules stalemate.

Erin P. Billings and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

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