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Ethics War On Hold, for Now

Despite threats of an all-out ethics war between House Democrats and Republicans, both sides are hesitating before filing actual ethics complaints against each other, fearful of being blamed for a partisan struggle that could damage the institution’s credibility with the American public.

At the same time, as the House ethics panel prepares to organize this week following a long fight over its rules for the 109th Congress, it is unclear how the committee will handle the cases of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other lawmakers caught up in the growing scandals over former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Congressional travel.

The ethics committee is expected to initiate an informal inquiry of DeLay under its own authority, and GOP insiders indicate that the probe could begin as early as this week.

The next threshold would be whether an investigative subcommittee is created, and if so, whether the scope of its inquiry would include such matters as the Majority Leader’s ties to Abramoff beyond two overseas trips he took with the ex-lobbyist. DeLay, as well as other Republicans, Democrats and Congressional aides, took a trip to South Korea that was paid for by a registered foreign agent, which is prohibited under House ethics rules.

Since House ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) at one point offered to set up an investigative subcommittee on DeLay during the rules impasse, most observers consider it unlikely that he can avoid setting up an investigative panel at this point.

Some government watchdog groups, including Common Cause and Democracy 21, are calling for an outside counsel to be appointed in the DeLay case. While Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other top Democrats have not endorsed that option yet, Democrats will wield the threat of bringing a privileged resolution to the floor for an outside counsel if the DeLay probe does not begin promptly or if the investigative subcommittee includes Members who have received campaign contributions from the Majority Leader.

Republicans, for their part, said a Democratic drive to appoint an outside counsel in the DeLay case could end any hope of bipartisan cooperation on restraining ethics fights.

Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) is in a similar situation to DeLay. Late in the 108th Congress, the ethics committee began an informal inquiry of Ney’s dealings with Abramoff during 2002. That inquiry had not been completed by the end of the 108th Congress, according to several sources.

With Ney receiving major media coverage since his dealings with Abramoff and an American Indian tribe from Texas were revealed last fall by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, even Ney backers have come to expect an investigative subcommittee to be empaneled when the ethics panel gets back to business.

Once the ethics committee staff completes a preliminary report on Ney, a majority vote by the full ethics committee would be required to establish an investigative subcommittee on the Ohio Republican.

In the meantime, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) were also targets of informal inquiries by the ethics committee last year. Conyers was being probed over whether he and his staff improperly engaged in political activity using his Congressional office, while Weldon was being scrutinized for his dealings with his daughter, a lobbyist whose firm represented several Russian clients.

An investigative subcommittee was established late last year to look into how Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) handled an illegally taped 1997 phone call involving House GOP leaders. McDermott and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) have been involved in a long-running legal struggle over tape, and Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) filed a formal complaint against McDermott in the case. That investigation will continue once the full ethics committee organizes, sources close to the committee said.

Democrats say they will make decisions on whether to file new ethics complaints once it is clear whether the ethics committee is taking up these high-profile cases on its own. Democrats say that if they believe Hastings is dragging his feet on probing DeLay, Ney and other GOP lawmakers, then they will file ethics complaints in order to jump-start the process.

Top Democrats also are waiting to see whether Republicans will follow through on threats to file complaints against Democratic lawmakers in response for all the media attention given the DeLay case.

“I hope it’s not a tit-for-tat-type thing,” said Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.). “That would be a terrible waste of time.”

Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said Democrats “anticipate some retaliation” by Republicans in the wake of the decision by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to retreat last week on three GOP-drafted changes to ethics rules, including one that would automatically dismiss complaints if the committee failed to act on them within 45 days.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), ranking member of the ethics panel, and the four other Democrats on the committee refused to allow the committee to organize, plunging the panel into a stalemate that ended only when Hastert agreed to rescind the rules changes.

“We expect them to go after us, knowing the way these guys play the game,” said a Democratic Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They are fairly ruthless.”

The Member added, “If they think one of their people is going down, they are going to take at least one of ours down with him.”

A Democratic aide said Democrats “will not start lobbing complaints against Republicans” unless the GOP fires the first shot, or if the ethics committee fails to act on some of the serious allegations “in the public domain” against Republican lawmakers, including DeLay and Ney.

Despite their bravado about retaliating if any Democrats file ethics complaints, Republicans would seem to have more to lose in a full-scale ethics war. Because they are the majority, anything that damages the reputation of Congress would be more injurious to the GOP.

Hastert came to power following a years-long war over ethics in the mid-1990s that included complaints against former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

At the time he took up the Speaker’s gavel, the Illinois Republican vowed to bring order to the House, including an end to “frivolous” ethics filings, and he has been largely successful on that front. Democrats and Republicans had an unofficial ethics “truce” that lasted until last year, when then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) filed a multi-pronged complaint against DeLay. The Texas Republican was admonished twice as a result of Bell’s complaint, although Bell himself was publicly rebuked by the ethics committee for some of the accusations he had made against DeLay. Bell was also redistricted out of his district due to a DeLay-led drive to redraw Texas’ Congressional map.

But with DeLay now facing the most serious political crisis of his career, even Hastert may have trouble controlling rank-and-file Republicans who want to lash out at Democrats.

Republican Reps. John Sweeney (N.Y.) and Tom Feeney (Fla.) are among a group of several dozen GOP lawmakers who have threatened to file complaints against Pelosi and other Democrats for violations of House ethics rules, most notably regarding privately funded trips taken by the Democratic lawmakers.

With these Republican threats being aired publicly and Democratic counterthreats to file their own complaints against at least four senior GOP Members, some in the GOP Conference are urging their own side to let the ethics committee do its work while redoubling their efforts to enact the Republican legislative agenda.

“I’m hoping that there is a war of ideas on Social Security, on the energy bill, on the highway bill — the things that we really need to get done for the American people. That’s where I’m hoping our focus is,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “I’m hoping the other side will engage with use on some of the issues know.”

Republicans quietly acknowledge that they could suffer more from all-out ethics war. “In the end, we’re the most affected by it,” said a senior House GOP aide. “We are in the majority, and we have a hell of a lot more to lose than they do. We have to be very careful here.”

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