House Republicans yesterday offered to open an investigation into overseas travel and other activities by Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), as part of an effort to resolve a three-month impasse with the Democrats that has kept the ethics committee from functioning.
With questions mounting about DeLay's past dealings with lobbyists, ethics committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said he would name Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), a lawyer who sits on the committee, to head a subcommittee to "review various allegations concerning travel and other actions by Mr. DeLay." Hastings said it would be up to Hart's panel to decide whether to bring in an outside counsel.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said he would welcome a "fair process that will afford me the opportunity to get the facts out."
(Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
Live, 1 p.m. ET: Congressional Quarterly's Susan Ferrechio takes readers' questions on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who is currently embroiled in an ethics controversy.
_____Tom DeLay (R-Tex.)_____
DeLay Issues Broad Denial Of Ethics Violations (The Washington Post, Apr 19, 2005)
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DeLay's Ability To Raise Funds Seems Unhurt (The Washington Post, Apr 17, 2005)
DeLay Seeks GOP Senators' Support (The Washington Post, Apr 13, 2005)
A 3rd DeLay Trip Under Scrutiny (The Washington Post, Apr 6, 2005)
But Democrats said the concessions outlined by Hastings did not address their chief objections to rule changes that the Republicans pushed through in January, most notably a new provision that would cause a complaint to be dismissed -- rather than lingering in limbo -- if the chairman and ranking minority party member cannot agree on whether to take up the case.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), rejected Hastings's offer as "inadequate on a number of grounds" and said he would not lift his objections to letting the committee organize under the Republican-engineered rules.
"If we're going to have an ethics committee, we have to do it right," Mollohan said. He said the current rules would "defeat the very purpose of the ethics committee, and that's to have credible investigations."
Still, Hastings's offer marked the most extensive willingness that Republicans have shown to compromise, following weeks of negative news coverage about the financing of trips by DeLay and his dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is now the subject of congressional and criminal investigations.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said on Sean Hannity's radio show: "Tom is ready to talk to people and clear himself." Hastert said that as long as Democrats "can keep somebody dangling out there like they have with Tom DeLay, they take great glee in that."
Some Republicans say they worry that without a functioning ethics committee, DeLay has no formal venue for trying to clear himself of allegations while the negative publicity continues to build.
Hastings said the ethics committee investigation cannot proceed until the committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is organized. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, called the Democrats' rejection of the offer as "ethics politics at its worst." House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) dismissed the proposal as "a charade."
The ethics crisis began last January when the Republicans pushed through, on a party-line vote over Democratic objections, changes in the ethics rule that required a complaint to be automatically dismissed after 45 days if a majority of the committee -- made up of five Republicans and five Democrats -- did not dispose of it by establishing an investigation or voting to dismiss it.
Republican leaders also changed the makeup of the committee. Hastert replaced the chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who had presided over three committee admonitions of DeLay last year, with Hastings, who was closer to the GOP leadership. Hastings also voted to admonish DeLay.
Two other Republicans on the committee were replaced with newcomers Hart and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), whom party leaders viewed as more reliable.
Hastings said at a news conference that he was taking the "unusual and extraordinary step" of offering to set up an investigative subcommittee in an effort to debunk Democratic assertions that the rule changes were "designed to protect Majority Leader DeLay from a formal investigation."
"The majority leader has said over and over, in communications and publicly, that he has done nothing wrong, and he wanted to have an opportunity to state his case," Hastings said. "This is a means by which he can state his case."
Hastings declined several times to say whether he had discussed his proposal with DeLay.
Hastings also pledged that he would not allow any complaint to be dismissed automatically, but would require a full vote of the committee.
Hastings said he wanted to make the changes as what he called a "gentlemen's agreement," in writing, rather than taking them to the House floor and pushing for formal revision of the rules. Hastings said he believes it is "highly unlikely that the House would be in a mood to change the rules."
DeLay, at a news conference earlier in the day, left open the possibility that the party would eventually entertain some reversal in the rule changes. He said he would wait for the ethics committee to make recommendations, and then he would "make a decision on whether to schedule or not."
"I haven't decided either way," DeLay said. "The rules changes that the Democrats are complaining about are the speaker's rules changes, that I was not consulted on, when the speaker saw that the ethics committee was being used for political purposes."
DeLay was asked whether he was staying out of the ethics fight on purpose. "That's like: 'When did you stop beating your wife?' " he said with a chuckle. "It is not my role, as the majority leader, to interfere or in any way try to influence what the ethics committee is doing."
DeLay has refused to answer reporters' questions about the sources of funding for several of his trips, and instead has said he is willing to supply documents to the ethics committee and appear before the senior Republican and Democrat on the panel. He said yesterday that he believes the House needs a functioning ethics committee.
"For more than a month, I've said I hope for a fair process that will afford me the opportunity to get the facts out and set the record straight," he said in a written statement. "I welcome the opportunity to address this with the committee."