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House to Consider Relaxing Its Rules

Republican aides said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is also leaning toward removing the ethics committee's chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who oversaw the admonishments of DeLay.

Congressional watchdogs sharply criticized the proposed rule change on bringing discredit to the chamber, which they said would weaken the House's already lax system of policing its members' conduct.

"This would be a fundamental undermining of the ethics rules in the House and a direct attempt to vitiate the findings of ethical misconduct against Majority Leader DeLay," Wertheimer said. "If this is done, it would be an extraordinarily destructive action against the ethics rules and would fundamentally undermine the integrity of the House."

Another proposed change, labeled "restore presumption of innocence," provides that the ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, will act on a complaint against a member only if both the chairman and the ranking minority member -- or the entire committee, consisting of five Democrats and five Republicans -- agree that an investigation is merited. Currently, the failure to make a decision -- regardless of whether it stems from a partisan stalemate -- automatically sends a complaint to an investigative subcommittee.

Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, said the result would be "a climate more conducive to corruption."

"The most important part of a congressional investigation is at the outset -- whether to have one -- so Republicans are trying to make sure they don't have them," Ruskin said.

Wertheimer said the change would mean "one-party veto power" over complaints. "It's a clear backtracking on an already weak process," he said. "It looks like an effort to increase the capacity to bury complaints without even looking at them."

Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the change would put the ethics committee in line with traditional House committees, which block issues that lack a majority vote. Unlike the ethics panel, traditional committees are controlled by the majority party.

The proposal, in a section called "due process for members," also calls for lawmakers accused by the ethics panel to have the chance to be heard before they are summoned for questioning. Under the current rule, according to a summary provided to Republican members, the committee "can take action against a Member without a complaint, notice, or the opportunity to be heard."

The proposed rule on travel would benefit single members, who would be able to take a parent, according to an aide. Currently, a House member's child or spouse may accompany a lawmaker or staff person on a privately funded but officially connected trip at the sponsor's expense. The rule change would expand that to cover any relative.

Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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