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Democrats Intensify Ethics War

House Democrats took their charges of GOP power abuses to a heightened level on Tuesday, accusing two powerful Republican committee chairmen of misusing their authority and demanding that one of them resign his post.

Democrats called for the resignation of Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the ethics committee, accusing him of failing to run his panel in a nonpartisan way. And they once again hammered on Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), complaining that he denied minority rights in a recent committee hearing.

The Democrats’ move comes as the party tries to make its contention that majority Republicans continue to go too far, a cornerstone of its political message.

“We’re going to continue to keep calling them on it; we’re not going to let them get away with it,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “When you go that far past the line we’ve got to call them on it.”

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the Rules Committee, led the latest charges against Hastings, saying he has politicized the ethics process and is unfit to serve as the committee leader. She said Republicans continue to try to circumvent the ethics committee process and render it inoperable, and that Hastings is helping take the lead by insisting on replacing the committee’s otherwise nonpartisan staff with “his handpicked team of Republican operatives.”

“The Republican majority will do everything in their power to bend the ethics committee into submission,” Slaughter said. “First they changed the rules. Then they fired the staff. Now, their own chairman is trying to unilaterally replace the nonpartisan professional staff with his handpicked team of GOP operatives.

“Enough is enough,” Slaughter continued. “It is time for Chairman Hastings to step aside. The ethics committee deserves more than partisan political power plays.”

But that’s exactly what Republicans accused the minority of resorting to, saying Democrats are turning to partisan politics because they have no substantive policy agenda to offer. GOP Members and aides were particularly irritated by Slaughter’s call for Hastings to step down.

“They have a political calendar that they are laying over the ethics committee calendar,” said a senior GOP leadership aide. “Hastings has put a bunch of different possible [staffing] solutions on the table and [Democrats] haven’t looked at any of them. … Any time they open their mouths on ethics, how can anyone take them seriously?”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) made a similar point at his weekly press briefing Tuesday, saying that the Democrats’ focus on the staff issue made their true intentions clear. Democrats have made a major issue of Hastings’ desire to hire his personal chief of staff as the ethics committee’s top aide, charging the move is a rules violation and flies in the face of the panel’s spirit of nonpartisanship.

“They want [the committee] to function in an election year, not this year,” DeLay said. “That’s obvious.”

Hastings was more measured in his response. “Chairman Hastings has tremendous respect for Mrs. Slaughter, but in this case he respectfully disagrees with her suggestion,” Hastings spokeswoman Jessica Gleason said.

Republicans also pointed out that Slaughter isn’t even a member of the ethics panel, which is formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and argued that the committee’s disputes should be worked out internally.

“The Speaker believes that House Democrats [not on the committee] should stay away from trying to influence the ethics process,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Slaughter, who has led the House Democrats’ charge on allegations of GOP ethics abuses, said her role is appropriate given her post as the leading Democrat on the panel that oversees House rules. But it’s not clear if ethics ranking member Allan Mollohan (W.Va.) agrees with her call for Hastings to step down.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me in any way to engage that question,” Mollohan said. After a moment, Mollohan added, “I have no reason to think that anyone who sits on the ethics committee cannot faithfully do their job.”

Slaughter said she was doing what she felt was appropriate, noting that she believes Hastings is simply trying to shield DeLay from a committee investigation. She added that Hastings shouldn’t “stand in judgment” of DeLay and others given recent news reports outlining his ties to former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

A recent Associated Press story laid out how Abramoff previously touted his relationship with Hastings as leverage to try to seal a deal with a client in 1995.

“I think I am saying what needs to be said,” Slaughter said. “I don’t like what’s happening here. It’s not a partisan thing.”

Meantime, Democrats turned up the heat on another prominent committee chairman, Sensenbrenner. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), a member of the Judiciary panel, offered a privileged resolution on the floor condemning the Wisconsin Republican for allegedly violating House rules during a recent hearing.

Nadler said in an interview that Sensenbrenner is developing a penchant for rolling over minority rights in committee, and Democrats aren’t going to take it lying down. He said it’s one more example of Republican abuses of power, and if it continues, the GOP can expect to see more privileged resolutions brought forward.

Nadler’s measure specifically rebukes Sensenbrenner for making “disparaging comments about” minority members, denying Democrats input and the opportunity to question witnesses and abruptly ending a hearing Friday. Sensenbrenner ended last week’s session, called by Democrats on the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act, while Nadler was speaking.

“You can’t let them get away with squelching the minority,” Nadler said.

Separately, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said of Sensenbrenner’s latest move: “That is the quintessential example of shutting up, shutting out, shutting down opposition, dissenting views, democracy.”

Sensenbrenner, however, does not plan to take the Democratic criticism lying down. He plans to go to the House floor today to rebut the charges made in Nadler’s privileged resolution.

Sensenbrenner and other Republicans say that Democrats have wildly distorted the events at last week’s hearing, adding that the minority was allowed ample time to speak and that the committee’s regular procedures — including the procedure for adjourning — were followed throughout the hearing

Nadler’s “resolution is completely false and over the top,” said Judiciary spokesman Jeff Lungren. Lungren also laughed as he pointed out that Sensenbrenner turned 62 on Tuesday.

“I guess that’s how Mr. Nadler wanted to treat Mr. Sensenbrenner on his birthday,” he said.

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