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GOP Eyes New Vote on Rules

Hoping to stem a controversy that has simmered for months, House GOP leaders are considering bringing the chamber’s ethics rules to the floor this week for a series of up-or-down votes, according to Republican sources.

At press time Tuesday night, GOP leaders were huddling in Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) office to decide whether to bring the ethics rules package — which passed on a party-line vote in January — back to the floor, providing Members with the chance to vote individually on the ethics changes that have drawn fierce protests from Democrats.

The discussions represent the latest attempt by the GOP to resolve the rules standoff, which has prevented the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct from organizing and attracted a wave of negative publicity for the majority party.

Several sources close to the discussions said that GOP leaders now realize that they need to reach some sort of compromise on ethics and put the issue behind them, though it remains unclear whether Republicans will ever agree to do what Democrats have demanded — either return to the old ethics rules or appoint a bipartisan task force to craft new ones.

Though Democrats plan to reserve judgment until they see the exact details of what Republicans plan to do, a senior Democratic leadership aide said that putting the rules changes back on the House floor would not necessarily resolve the standoff.

“If the Republicans in good faith want to go back to the old bipartisan rules they will have overwhelming Democratic support,” the aide said. “If we’re going to play games this week with the ethics process like the Republicans did last week, Democrats aren’t going to be a party to those efforts.”

Ethics ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) has identified three rules changes that Democrats find unacceptable: a rule stating that a complaint be dismissed within 45 days unless a majority of committee members vote to proceed with an investigation, a rule that would allow every Member and witness involved in a particular case to retain the same counsel, and a rule that would allow any Member mentioned in a forthcoming ethics committee document to view and contest that document before publication.

Republicans are considering putting each of those changes on the floor for separate votes, under the theory that such a move would rob Democrats of the argument that the rules were rammed through without giving Members the chance to consider them adequately.

It was not clear to strategists in either party Tuesday whether any of those three changes would be reversed if they were subjected to separate votes, though some Republicans suggested that the 45-day rule was the most likely of the three to be overturned.

Ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) already offered last week to alter that requirement, saying he would pledge in writing that no complaint would be dismissed without the ethics panel having voted on it. He also said he would be willing to grant extensions of at least three months beyond the allotted 45 days for the committee to consider a pending complaint.

Mollohan dismissed that and Hastings’ other offers as “inadequate” last week, despite the GOP’s unusual offer to immediately empanel an investigative subcommittee to probe the activities of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Republicans say that their actions make clear that the rules changes were not drafted simply to protect DeLay, and that Democrats’ rejection of any compromise so far makes clear their desire to prolong the impasse for political gain.

Democrats have countered that they are eager to have the ethics committee up and running and that Republicans are ultimately to blame for the standoff because of their refusal to revert to the old bipartisan rules or give Democrats an equal role in crafting new ones.

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