House Republican leaders last night abandoned a proposal to loosen rules governing members' ethical conduct, as they yielded to pressure from rank-and-file lawmakers concerned that the party was sending the wrong message.
The proposal would have made it more difficult for lawmakers to discipline a colleague for unethical behavior and would have allowed Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to keep his post if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury that is looking into his campaign finance practices.
The sudden reversal came amid growing indications of dissension within the GOP. Just before House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's office announced that the measures were being dropped, the chairman of the House ethics committee issued an unusual statement denouncing the leadership's plan.
Rep. Joel Hefley (Colo.), who appeared on the verge of being forced out as chairman after his committee voted three times last year to admonish DeLay, issued a statement criticizing the proposed rule changes as highly partisan and not in the best interests of the House. "Ethics reform must be bipartisan and this package is not bipartisan," Hefley said in the statement after sending Republican colleagues a letter outlining his objections.
Republicans voted to go ahead with another of their controversial ethics proposals and will ask the full House to approve a change that could curtail ethics committee investigations. Under the change, a Republican vote would be required before an inquiry can begin. The committee is evenly divided between the two parties, and under current rules a deadlock means an investigation begins automatically.
The actions came during a closed-door meeting of House Republicans, who had just returned to Washington for the start of the 109th Congress today. The decisions were made by Hastert and by DeLay, who asked his colleagues to reverse their decision in November to rewrite an 11-year-old party rule so that he could keep his leadership job even if indicted. A Texas grand jury has indicted three of his political associates in an investigation of campaign finances related to a House redistricting plan that DeLay helped push through in the state.
DeLay told the caucus last night that he is confident he will not face indictment, said a DeLay spokesman, Jonathan Grella. Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) said during a break in the meeting that the "indictment rule" was restored in part because of complaints that members had heard back home.
"Constituents reacted," he said. "We're blessed with a leadership that listens."
Aides said DeLay made the decision quite a while ago that he would propose changing the rule on indictments back to the previous version, saying that he could see Democrats would continue using the change as a basis for personal attacks. The aides said DeLay did not want to put Republicans through it, and wanted to deny Democrats the opening.
At their own private meeting, Democrats added a rule requiring party leaders to step down if they are indicted. Democrats planned to try to embarrass Republicans by proposing such a rule in the full House today.
The other proposed rule change abandoned by the Republicans last night would have negated an ethics rule that was used last year as the basis for admonishing DeLay three times -- for hosting a golf fundraiser for energy lobbyists before House consideration of the energy bill, for offering to endorse the political campaign of a lawmaker's son in exchange for the lawmaker's vote on Medicare legislation, and for enlisting Federal Aviation Administration officials to help track down Democratic Texas lawmakers who were trying to foil the redistricting plan.
The 30-year-old rule allowed lawmakers to be rebuked for bringing discredit on the House even if their behavior did not violate a law or regulation. Under a plan the GOP circulated just before New Year's Eve, lawmakers could run afoul of the House only by breaking a specific rule.
Although supporters of the change said the current standard is vague and subject to partisan manipulation, watchdog groups and some Republicans said the change amounted to gutting standards that were already relatively weak. "It had become a distraction," said Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery. "It was in response to some of our members' requests."
Hefley's salvo aligned him with independent watchdog groups and some Democrats who contend that the Republicans, emboldened by President Bush's victory and their enlarged margins of control in both chambers, are using heavy-handed techniques to protect their interests. Republicans used the same charge successfully against entrenched Democrats in fighting for control of the chamber in 1994.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) called the planned ethics changes "a grave mistake."
"Those of us who were here in 1994 remember we gained our Republican majority in part because we argued that as public servants, we have a responsibility to the American people to maintain the highest standards of conduct," Shays said.
Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said: "Even for Republicans, this proposed change was unconscionable. The issue simply became too hot for them to handle, so they had to drop it."
Hefley, a conservative, has acted too independently to please the leaders. Republican aides have said repeatedly that Hastert is leaning toward removing him when committee assignments are made this week. Aides said Hefley has served four terms on the ethics committee -- which they said is all he is allowed under House rules. However, leaders can make exceptions.
Hefley did not attend the meeting of the House Republican Conference last night, and his staff said he was traveling. Eight watchdog groups, which banded together in 2003 as the Congressional Ethics Coalition, held a news conference yesterday to protest the proposed changes and retribution against Hefley. The organizations, which included Public Citizen, the Center for Responsive Politics, Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause, asserted that the changes would weaken the House's already lax ethical guidelines and that tougher rules -- not looser ones -- should be passed. The groups, which have heavily Democratic staffs, said in a statement that the House is "on the verge of the complete collapse of the system for holding members of Congress to a meaningful code of ethics."
On another matter that was at least as controversial among members as the ethics issues, the GOP voted to support a new Committee on Homeland Security, although it will not have as much power as some lawmakers wanted. House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said that taking jurisdiction away from existing committees "leaves one with scars" and joked that he may be "dining alone."
Staff writer Jeffrey Birnbaum contributed to this report.