House Republicans opened a new session of Congress yesterday by pushing through a new rule curtailing the ways ethics investigations can be launched, a day after they retreated on two other ethics moves.
With Democrats objecting, Republicans passed a package of House rules that requires at least one Republican to agree before the ethics committee begins an inquiry. The committee's membership is evenly divided between parties, and previously a deadlock meant an inquiry would automatically begin.
Republicans contend that the change -- passed 220 to 195 -- closes a loophole and protects lawmakers against politically inspired investigations. But Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the move "shameless" and said it reflects Republicans' "arrogant, petty, short-sighted focus on their political life."
On the eve of the session, Republicans abandoned their plan to gut a rule that allows the ethics committee to admonish a member even if no specific law has been broken, and restored a rule requiring a party leader to step down if indicted.
Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). said the decision to back off was aimed at denying the opposition "ammunition on the first day" of the new Congress.
"They're going to do it anyway. But that's part of their long-standing announced strategy -- to tear down the institution in order to gain power," he said.
Pointing to the House floor, though, DeLay said he is not worried. "Look what's happening in there," he said. "We're winning, and we're going to keep on winning."
Opening the two-year session, members toted toddlers and family Bibles into the chamber for a brief swearing-in and a 40-minute roll call returning Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to the speaker's chair. He declared, "The 109th Congress will be a reform Congress." He said he has "big plans" and promised to work in a bipartisan way to get additional tsunami aid for South Asia. The session is likely to be dominated by President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security and by fights over his judicial nominations.
But amid the opening-day pomp, Republicans struggled privately with fissures from their leaders' effort to water down rules.
Ethics committee Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) broke with GOP leaders on the House floor, saying he thought the changes were a mistake since they were done without bipartisan discussion.
"I don't like that," Hefley added, although he voted for the package. He also said the committee should have been consulted. "These are the people that struggle with these issues every day," he said. "You ought to be concerned about what we think would make the process work better. You don't have to follow it."
Adding to the drama of Hefley's public rebuke of House leaders, lawmakers and aides said he will be replaced this week as ethics chairman. Leadership aides contend that term-limit rules mean it is time for him to go, but exceptions can be made. "I expect to be booted," Hefley told reporters.
A Republican aide said that the current rules "would never be tolerated in a court of law" and that the changes "insert an appropriate level of due process."
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said the Republicans' decision to withdraw their plan to neutralize one of the most fundamental ethics rules "was neither a philosophical nor a substantive retreat -- it was a tactical judgment by an extremely good counter of votes."
At a Monday night meeting in the House chamber with pizza boxes stacked outside, DeLay called for the restoration of the "indictment rule," and members did so unanimously. DeLay said yesterday that he had been thinking about the idea for a week or so, and made the decision only an hour before speaking to his fellow Republicans. "I heard nothing from members over the break on this issue," he said.
However, some lawmakers said leaders had called to take their temperature over the break, and many said that rank-and-file Republicans were shocked to find what was in the rules package, which had been e-mailed to them two days before New Year's Eve.
Some Republican lawmakers said that it looked like hubris, and that their constituents had begun to complain. One member of the leadership, who declined to be named so he could speak about his views, said he thought the changes were "the wrong thing to do" because it reminded him of the overreaching by Democrats before Republicans won control in 1994. "I said, 'My God, we're not going to be like them,' " he said.
Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) said the return of the indictment rule had removed "a ball and chain around our foot."
A Texas grand jury is investigating a fundraising committee linked to DeLay. DeLay said the change makes him more vulnerable to a politically inspired indictment. Asked if he thinks he will be charged with a crime, he said, "I doubt it."