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Ethics Tactics Roil the House

GOP Contends Rules Violated

House Republicans, furious with what they said were Democrats’ high-handed tactics used to pass an ethics bill, on Wednesday demanded an investigation into the parliamentary maneuvers and raised the specter of sidelining the newly created independent ethics office.

The House approved the Office of Congressional Ethics late Tuesday night, overcoming the trepidation of Democrats and Republicans to implement the first major change to the chamber’s ethics process in more than a decade.

The OCE would mark the first time that a semi-independent entity, whose members would be appointed by bipartisan House leadership, would oversee compliance with the chamber’s internal rules.

Republicans, who opposed that approach in favor of overhauling the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, protested on the House floor Wednesday by engaging in procedural delays intended to highlight hard-line tactics used by Democrats to overcome a near-defeat of the measure.

During a procedural vote preceding final passage of the resolution, known as “ordering the previous question,” Democrats appeared to lose, as nearly two dozen of their own Members voted against the proposal.

But Democrats refused to gavel the vote closed for another 12 minutes beyond the normal 15-minute period, as leadership pressed four Members to change votes and provided the majority a narrow victory.

“It’s rather ironic that they have to break their new ethics reforms in order to pass a new ethics reform bill,” observed House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.).

Republicans loudly protested as the vote remained open Tuesday night, alleging that Democrats violated House Rules XX, which prohibits a vote from exceeding the 15-minute limit “for the sole purpose of reversing the outcome of such vote.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) proposed Wednesday that the House ethics committee and a select committee investigate Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) and other Democratic leaders’ role in the Tuesday night vote, forcing the issue to the floor as a privileged resolution.

That measure also provided for the repeal of the procedural vote and the subsequent ballot, effectively reversing the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics without another difficult House vote.

Although the House voted to table the measure, rendering it dead, Republicans vowed to press on with their objections to the vote as well as the ethics office.

Pelosi, who made the bill’s passage her personal mission in recent weeks, defended Democratic tactics and rejected comparisons to the former Republican majority.

“It was very different. We were in a reasonable time frame,” Pelosi said. She added that Members who changed votes in the period after the 15-minute clock had run out were merely confused about the procedural motion. “Some people just didn’t understand what those consequences were,” she said.

Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), one of the four Democrats to switch his vote on the procedural motion, said there was nothing nefarious in his reversal — just a mistake.

Stupak acknowledged that, like several other Democrats, he had initially been on the fence about whether to support the ethics bill. But earlier in the day Tuesday, he assured Pelosi that he would support the bill.

He said when he got to the chamber he looked at the tally board and saw that Members such as Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) had voted no, and so he voted no as well, thinking that was the way he was supposed to vote on the procedural motion. He then left the chamber and made a phone call to his wife just off the House floor.

A Democratic floor staff later located him and told him that he was supposed to vote yes. He then changed his vote. Stupak said he was distracted because his local high school basketball team had just won its way into the state’s equivalent of the Final Four.

“It was my fault,” Stupak said.

But another Democrat, who opposed the ethics office but voted in favor of the bill, raised doubts over the Speaker’s explanation and suggested Members were not perplexed by a common procedural vote.

“There were an awful lot of discussions with Members, literally asking them to support the measure,” said the lawmaker, who asked not to be identified. “I held my nose. I didn’t like it. … Everybody knew what we were doing.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) — who cast the final votes along with Stupak and Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) — acknowledged he voted in favor of the measure despite reservations.

“I’ve been struggling with it all week. … I don’t support the notion of delegating Congressional authority on ethics,” he explained.

Butterfield changed his decision on the House floor, where he could be seen speaking with Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.): “I had some concern that if the matter was defeated it might be perceived the Democrats are weak on ethics.”

During the Tuesday night vote, many Democrats taunted their GOP colleagues with shouts of “three hours,” a reference to the now infamous Medicare Part D vote that Republicans held open for three hours to ensure passage while they were in the majority. That vote is what led Democrats to adopt Rule XX as part of their rules package at the beginning of this Congress.

But House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) rejected Democrats’ assertions Wednesday that the GOP has little credibility on the subject.

“There is absolutely no question that that vote was held open purely for the purpose of persuading Members to change their vote,” Blunt said. “I don’t have to say whether that’s always a bad thing or not. All I’ve got to say is they said they would never do it. They changed the rules so that it would be a violation of the rules to ever do it. And they do it repeatedly.”

Putnam asserted that Democrats are “hemorrhaging credibility,” and said that their actions could come back to haunt them at the ballot box this fall.

“Voters have a right to expect they will get the best out of their government and these types of shenanigans reinforce people’s worst fears about self-serving politicians,” Putnam said.

In the meantime, the new ethics office could be delayed if Republican leaders defer on appointing any of the body’s six members, who must be jointly approved by the Speaker.

“To think that we can come to an agreement on six people to serve on this outside panel strikes me as a stretch. I can’t imagine who in their right mind would want to serve on this outside panel because of the fighting that’s going to occur, not by Members, but by partisan groups on both sides who are going to want to be filing frivolous complaints,” Boehner said Tuesday night.

A GOP aide said Wednesday that Republican leaders are “not anywhere near making that decision” of who would be appointed to the board.

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said Democrats are prepared to negotiate over members of the new ethics office, criticizing GOP lawmakers for implying the process could be delayed.

“Suggestions of delaying the process by the Republicans would neither serve the bipartisan majority of Members of Congress who support the outside ethics board nor the wishes of the American people to bring about additional accountability and reform to Washington,” Elshami said.

As part of the fallout from the ethics vote, a spat simmered on the floor between the top Democrat and Republican on the ethics panel.

Taking control of the House floor on a point of personal privilege — a rarely invoked motion that allows a Member to control the chamber for one hour — ethics committee ranking member Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) railed against ethics Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio).

In a “Dear Colleague” letter distributed on the House floor Tuesday night, Jones criticized Hastings for releasing internal committee e-mails critiquing the proposed Office of Congress Ethics and accused him of violating House rules in doing so.

Hastings took to the floor to defend his actions — asserting he had not violated rules and insisting he had “consulted” with Jones as required.

“I suppose, like all positions that we take in this body, there’s always more than what is on the surface, and I felt that needed to be explained as fully as I possibly could. If I’m guilty of anything, it was my motivation to allow the members of this body to gain as much information as possible,” Hastings asserted.

On the floor, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said that Jones owes Hastings an apology and went as far as to call for the ethics chairwoman to be replaced.

“What good is it for us to trash one another? What good is it for us to trash the institution?” LaHood said.

But Jones maintained her assertion that Hastings had not consulted with her before the releasing the e-mails. At one point, Hastings offered to yield the floor to Jones stating: “I would be happy to yield to the distinguished chairman if she will acknowledge that I consulted with her.”

Jones could not be seen on C-SPAN cameras but could be heard responding: “Thank you, but I won’t.”

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