House action opens way for ethics probe of DeLay

406-20 vote dumps rules that blocked investigation

April 28, 2005|By Jill Zuckman | Jill Zuckman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The House voted overwhelmingly last night to toss out controversial new rules governing its ethics committee as House Speaker Dennis Hastert gave in to public pressure to do so.

The change paved the way for the panel to consider possible ethics violations by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

"I'm willing to step back," Hastert told reporters as he left a closed-door meeting of the House Republican conference hours before the full House voted, 406-20, to reinstate rules it used in the last session of Congress.

Democrats had complained bitterly that Hastert had killed what they said was a more bipartisan approach in January in order to substitute Republican-crafted rules designed to protect DeLay, a Texas Republican, from having to answer questions about his foreign travel and fund-raising activities.

Republicans, however, had insisted they were only trying to ensure fairness for all House members and to prevent one political party from abusing the ethics process at the expense of the other by bringing frivolous charges against some representatives.

But with DeLay currently caught in a daily barrage of questions about his connections to lobbyists and foreign agents paying for his overseas trips, GOP lawmakers said all House Republicans were being tarnished by the fight over the ethics panel rules.

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, like Hastert an Illinois Republican, described himself as "thrilled" with the turn of events.

"This paves the way for the ethics committee to begin its operations and begin a file on the majority leader and several other members who should be looked at," Kirk said.

Since January, Democrats on the ethics committee have refused to meet with their Republican counterparts in protest of the rule changes, as well as of Hastert's decision to replace Republican committee members thought to be too tough on DeLay. Last year, the committee admonished DeLay three times.

Nevertheless, DeLay has said for weeks that he was looking forward to answering questions from the committee. But without a working panel, the majority leader found himself lacking a venue to make his case.

DeLay said yesterday afternoon that his staff was putting together documents going back 10 years to show the panel.

"I believe this House needs an ethics committee," DeLay said, explaining his support for changing the rules. "I have been trying to take certain matters before the ethics committee, and I am looking forward to taking it in the future."

The key change to the rules would allow ethics investigations to begin even if the committee, which has five Democrats and five Republicans, finds itself in a tie vote on whether to proceed with an investigation. Since January, the rules had called for an automatic dismissal of charges against a lawmaker in case the committee was evenly divided.

In a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Hastert described the January revisions as "minor but important changes to the rules which provide all members with basic fairness."

He called them "common sense reforms" that "have sadly been twisted and distorted and used as political fodder" by Pelosi and the Democrats.

Aides to Hastert said his decision to reverse course was extremely difficult for him because he so firmly believed that he was protecting all members of the House from political mischief.

But in addressing the GOP conference, Hastert said he was offering them his best judgment on how to put the controversy to rest.

"He feels like it's more important to have an ethics committee than to prolong the disagreement," DeLay said of Hastert.

Some Republicans said they believe it will rob Democrats of one of their few successful political salvos.

"I think what this does is it takes this ethics committee process question off the table," said Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who is the former ethics committee chairman deposed by Hastert at the beginning of the year. "That doesn't mean the Democrats will stop going after DeLay. They think this is a good horse to ride."

Rep. Judy Biggert, an Illinois Republican who is a member of the ethics committee, called the decision to back off the new rules "the lesser of two evils.

"The greater evil is to not allow the ethics committee to do its job," Biggert said, adding that she is in charge of an ethics investigation into a member of the House that has been hung up for four months because of the partisan clash over the committee's rules. "Nobody should have to wait that long."

Not surprisingly, Democrats claimed victory, though they complained that Republicans had packed the committee with party leadership loyalists and partisan staffers.

"It is a sign that public opinion is overwhelmingly against them," Rep. Barney Frank, a Massacusetts Democrat, said of the GOP retreat. "They read the newspapers and the polls."

House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland called the move to reinstate the old rules "inevitable."

"Today is not a day for those of us on the Democratic side of the aisle to gloat," he said. "... It is a day for those who instigated and supported these partisan rule changes in January to recognize that a serious mistake in judgment was made."

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat, said the GOP "does not deserve a pat on the back" for its about-face.

"We should always remember that it's easy to make the right decision when the whole world is watching," she said. "What defines our character is what we do when no one is watching."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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