House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert is leaning toward removing the House ethics committee chairman, who admonished House Majority Leader Tom DeLay this fall and has said he will treat DeLay like any other member, several Republican aides said yesterday.
Although Hastert (Ill.) has not made a decision, the expectation among leadership aides is that the chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), long at odds with party leaders because of his independence, will be replaced when Congress convenes next week.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was admonished.
The aides said a likely replacement is Rep. Lamar S. Smith, one of DeLay's fellow Texans, who held the job from 1999 to 2001. Smith wrote a check this year to DeLay's defense fund. An aide said Smith was favored for his knowledge of committee procedure.
Republicans are bracing for the possibility that DeLay, who is the chamber's second-ranking Republican and holds enormous sway over lawmakers, could be indicted by a Texas grand jury conducting a campaign finance investigation that the party contends is politically motivated.
The effort by DeLay and his allies to preserve his leadership post, even if he faces criminal charges, is one of the most sensitive issues facing Republicans as the new Congress begins. If Hefley is replaced by Smith, it is another signal by House leaders that they will stand by DeLay. "It certainly seems they're circling the wagons," said a GOP staff member who declined to be identified.
The aides said the stated reason for Hefley's removal is likely to be that it is time for him to rotate off the committee after serving as chairman since January 2001. An aide to Hefley declined to comment.
Hefley, a conservative, was co-author of an October letter saying that certain DeLay actions "went beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct." A committee report said DeLay broke no House rules.
The chairman told the Denver Post in July and reported in October that he would handle charges against the leader "in the ethics committee like I would handle anything else."
Hefley took the job reluctantly, and the post is considered undesirable among lawmakers. Hefley represents Colorado Springs, home to more than 20 evangelical organizations, including Focus on the Family, the large Christian enterprise run by James Dobson.
Also yesterday, the House ethics committee announced an investigation into a Democrat's release of the transcript of a secretly recorded 1997 telephone conversation among GOP leaders concerning then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). It is the committee's first new inquiry in nine months. House officials said the committee is likely to seek a deposition of the member, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). In October, he lost a federal court ruling that could force him to pay $600,000 to Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who sued McDermott for releasing the call.
On another matter, the watchdog group Democracy 21 called on the committee to investigate whether House members had received improper gifts from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The request cited a Washington Post report Monday that Abramoff made luxury skyboxes available to lawmakers, including Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.).