WASHINGTON -- House Republicans today will consider a move to release the names of all lawmakers who bounced checks at the House bank, setting up a political fight with Democrats who support a limited disclosure that includes the most serious offenders.
Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, chairman of the Republican Conference, will ask fellow GOP lawmakers to approve his measure, which would reveal the names of all 296 current members who bounced at least one check.
"I think our members lean in the direction of full disclosure," said Mr. Lewis, following a meeting with House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois and other Republican leaders. Mr. Michel has yet to take a position on how many names to disclose.
The House Ethics Committee voted 10-4 last week to disclose the names of the most egregious check bouncers: 19 current and five former House members who bounced checks over a 39-month period ending last October. One committee member said the top check kiter bounced about 900 checks and exceeded the account's limits 35 out of the 39 months.
The House Democratic leadership backed the committee's recommendation and a full House vote could come as early as tomorrow.
Meanwhile, there were meetings yesterday among Democratic leaders -- and between the two parties -- that could set the stage for greater disclosure than the number the committee proposed, said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Caucus. "I think the situation is very fluid," he said.
Besides Mr. Lewis, seven freshman GOP lawmakers are backing the naming of all 296 members, along with 59 former members, who bounced at least one check.
A spokesman for one of those freshmen, Rep. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, said the seven lawmakers would back the Lewis proposal. Meanwhile, GOP Ethics Committee members who voted against the committee action also are pressing for a longer list of check bouncers, although they have yet to come up with a figure.
Whether the Republicans can muster enough support for full disclosure is uncertain. The GOP has 166 House members, compared with 269 Democrats. But there will likely be other members who take the same path as Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Maryland Democrat.
Mr. Mfume, an Ethics Committee member, first backed identifying only the 24 members, then yesterday decided to support full disclosure. The congressman said he supported the subcommittee's recommendation to make sure the issue would be debated on the House floor.
He said the only way to restore the public trust was through full disclosure. "I think anything less would give the impression it's being done behind closed doors," he said.
The House bank, which closed last fall, routinely let members overdraw their accounts without penalty. Members are quick to point out the bank was a cooperative whose only deposits were lawmakers' paychecks. No public money was lost in the bank, which always had a balance of at least $1 million, said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the ethics subcommittee that investigated the bank.
The bank came to light in a report last fall by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The full House moved to investigation to determine which members "routinely and repeatedly wrote checks that exceeded their accounts by a significant amount."
The ethics subcommittee determined that those members who exceeded their next month's net pay for at least 8 months out of 39 would qualify. An estimated 20,000 bad checks were written, the subcommittee found.
Ethics committee members say they do not know the names of the offenders, whose accounts are only listed by a code number.
Members are being inundated with phone calls at their offices about the House bank and approached by constituents, many of whom are pressing for all the names to be released.