House Republicans have decided to replace the chairman of the ethics committee, who has crossed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay so many times that the two barely speak, top leadership aides said yesterday.
The chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), has not been told his fate but said in an interview that his fellow leaders are "probably going to boot me."
"I'm not naive enough to not know that there are some folks that are very upset with me because they think we were too harsh with DeLay," Hefley said.
The decision is the latest action by the House GOP that makes ethics a central issue when the White House wants leaders to focus on President Bush's agenda.
Hefley and his ethics committee admonished DeLay (R-Tex.), the second-ranking House leader, three times in a week last year for political and financial practices that critics called improper. The committee said DeLay had not broken any law or House rule.
New chairs are named at the start of each Congress. House aides said that unless Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) changes his mind, Hefley will not return.
Hefley, 69, said his banishment will be viewed as retribution, although he does not know if that is the reason. Republicans, backed by the nonpartisan House parliamentarian's office, contend he has served the maximum number of terms the rules allow.
"His time is up," said a leadership aide who spoke on the condition on anonymity because leaders' deliberations are private.
Hefley, who took the helm in 2001, and the lawyers on his staff disputed that interpretation. The leaders can grant exceptions, but Republicans said there was no precedent for doing so on the ethics committee.
One Republican official made it clear that the leaders do not trust Hefley. "We saw, over the last two years, serious problems on the committee in terms of members being able to defend themselves," the official said. "We're trying to ensure that if the Democrats try to go that route, that members will have adequate due-process rights and the ability to defend themselves."
The aides said they do not know when the new ethics committee, formally the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, will be named. Leaders worked into the night on committee rosters.
No new chairman has been selected. An official said the speaker, who by tradition names the ethics committee, is considering about 40 names. "They're looking for folks who are not perceived to be overtly partisan -- people who will be deemed fair, middle-of-the-road folks," the official said.