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Tensions Slow Deal on Ethics

Leaders Hesitant to Compromise

With relations between House Democratic and Republican leaders at their lowest point in several years, senior Members from both sides of the aisle are cautiously exploring ways to defuse the rapidly escalating conflict over the chamber’s ethics rules.

Lawmakers from both parties made increasingly hostile allegations against each other last week, and a GOP Member close to the leadership said several rank-and-file Republicans were prepared to draft complaints against Democrats if the situation worsens.

“There’s a sense that this is a sort of Armageddon process,” the lawmaker said.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has yet to organize for the 109th Congress because Democrats will not accept new ethics rules drafted by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and adopted on a party-line vote earlier this year.

Last week, ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) canceled a scheduled panel meeting after ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) rejected his proposed compromise offer, which included a pledge to launch an investigative subcommittee to probe the activities of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Ideas for resolving the impasse emerged last week from an unlikely source — recently deposed ethics Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.).

Hefley told reporters that he had made a handful of suggestions to Hastert, including allowing the ethics committee to meet for a month to resolve the issue or asking a senior lawmaker from each party — he recommended Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.). — to handle the negotiations.

While the relationship between Hastert and Hefley has been strained as of late, leadership sources said Hefley’s suggestion got a positive reception.

“I think there are some people who are interested in those ideas,” said a senior GOP leadership aide.

Another Republican leadership aide said the proposal to have the ethics committee itself negotiate the rules was particularly attractive, though he cautioned that no decisions have been made.

For Democrats, the idea of appointing a senior Member from each party isn’t much different from their longstanding demand for the appointment of a bipartisan ethics task force.

A Democratic leadership aide said a formal task force would be preferable to an informal two-person negotiation.

“If it’s just an informal meeting, they’re not empowered to cut a deal and it doesn’t really matter what they come up with,” the aide said.

Officials from both parties agreed that the tensions between Hastert and Pelosi over the ethics issue had escalated to the point where it might be necessary for each leader to name a trusted emissary to look for common ground.

Efforts on the Republican side to use intermediaries have not yet borne fruit. Sources said GOP leaders have approached a handful of senior Democratic lawmakers to discuss the issue, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has also approached Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in an effort to resolve the impasse.

Democratic leaders have so far firmly rejected those efforts, however, just as they rejected Hastings’ offer.

To Democrats, there is little room for negotiation; either the House must return to the previous set of ethics rules or a bipartisan task force must be named to craft new ones.

Republicans, meanwhile, want to ensure that any further change in the ethics rules do not entail an acrimonious partisan debate before C-SPAN’s cameras on the House floor.

As the ethics fight plays out, several aides on both sides of the aisle said interparty leadership relations have not been this bad since the fight over choosing the House Chaplain in 2000.

In that incident, some Democrats accused Republican leaders of anti-Catholic bias in filling the religious post. The charge infuriated Hastert, and relations between him and then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) remained frosty until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought the two sides closer together.

In general, Pelosi and Hastert have never been able to forge as close a relationship as Hastert and Gephardt did after the Chaplain incident, according to both Democratic and Republican aides.

Much of that is attributable to differences in their communication style. Hastert has complained openly in the past about Pelosi’s tendency to write him letters on important subjects rather than just picking up the phone or coming to his office to meet face-to-face as Hastert would prefer.

“Pelosi is definitely not old-school,” said a Republican leadership aide.

A Democratic leadership aide said that Pelosi saw letter-writing as a way to improve her negotiations with Hastert, not as a substitute for personal contact.

“There’s something to be said for putting a request in writing so that there’s no gray area as to what you’re requesting,” said the Democratic aide.

Pelosi and her GOP counterparts still observe some basic courtesies. When Hastert was hospitalized earlier this month, Pelosi called to wish him well. And the Minority Leader led a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) during the plane flight to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

Yet Republicans complain that those gestures mean little as long as Pelosi continues to call DeLay corrupt and question Hastert’s motivations on the ethics issue.

“On an institutional level this has never happened before — her questioning the Speaker’s choices for the ethics committee, questioning his integrity,” said a Republican leadership aide.

But a Democratic leadership aide said that Pelosi did not intend her criticisms to be a personal attack on Hastert.

“Pelosi has a lot of respect for Speaker Hastert,” said the aide. “But did the Republicans as an entity cross the line in rewriting the ethics rules? Yes.”

On a basic level, the complaints of both parties about the ethics impasse have boiled down to saying, “They started it.”

To Republicans, Pelosi began the politicization of the ethics process by meeting with Mollohan last September to discuss the DeLay case. They argue that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) made the situation worse when he said Democrats planned to make the ethics committee an issue in the 2006 elections.

For their part, Democrats firmly believe that Hastert caused the current fight by unilaterally rewriting the ethics rules without consulting them or any ethics committee members or staff, a break with past practice. They believe that Hastert was simply unhappy with the ethics panel’s unanimous admonishments of DeLay last year.

And while Republicans have complained about Democratic attempts to brand them as corrupt in the press, Hastert responded in kind last week, saying on Sean Hannity’s radio show, “There’s probably four or five [ethics] cases out there dealing with top-level Democrats. There’s a reason they don’t want to go forward with the ethics process.”

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