GOP to Reverse Ethics Rule Blocking New DeLay Probe

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay gets a lift from President Bush in Texas.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay gets a lift from President Bush in Texas. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 27, 2005

House Republican leaders, acknowledging that ethics disputes are taking a heavy toll on the party's image, decided yesterday to rescind a controversial rule change that led to the three-month shutdown of the ethics committee, according to officials who participated in the talks.

Republicans touched off a political uproar in January by changing a rule that had required the ethics committee to continue considering a complaint against a House member if there was a deadlock between the committee's five Republicans and five Democrats. The January change reversed this, calling for automatic dismissal of an ethics complaint when a deadlock occurs.

Democrats rebelled against that and other changes -- saying Republicans were trying to protect House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) from further ethics investigations -- and blocked the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is officially known, from organizing for the new Congress.

Republicans on the committee say they will launch an investigation of DeLay's handling of overseas trips and gifts as soon as the impasse over the rules is broken. The Washington Post reported last weekend that Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff charged DeLay's airfare to London and Scotland to his American Express card in 2000.

House ethics rules bar lawmakers from accepting travel and related expenses from registered lobbyists. DeLay said that he will meet with the committee chairman and the ranking Democrat, and that his staff is assembling documents to turn over to the committee. The panel admonished DeLay three times last year for what it deemed inappropriate official behavior.

The officials participating in talks about restarting the committee said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has agreed to ask the House to vote later this week on a rollback of the rule change. A Republican adviser said the decision "is the speaker's way of trying to put this behind us and get us back to regular order."

"There will be a [political] cost to this, but if he had not done this, the cost would continue to increase," said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Hastert had not announced his decision.

This morning, at a weekly meeting for all House Republicans, Hastert will present options for the rollback package, officials said. The officials, who demanded anonymity because the negotiations were confidential, said the proposal will include a reversal of the January rule that would automatically dismiss an ethics complaint after 45 days if the committee is deadlocked.

"It's gone," an official said of the automatic-dismissal rule as he emerged from the negotiations.

A House Republican leadership aide said that the automatic-dismissal rule is "the rule that is most commonly believed to be designed to protect Tom DeLay" and that it was "impossible to win the communications battle" on it.

Leaving his office last night, Hastert would not say what form his recommended changes will take and suggested that one option might be to lengthen the time before the automatic dismissal occurs, to perhaps 90 or 120 days.

"Sooner or later, there has to be a resolution -- people can't be dangled out there forever," Hastert said. "I think [the January changes] were good, fair things for the Congress -- everybody. But, you know, that is the point of contention. We can't move forward, we can't organize, we can't do the work that the ethics committee needs to do."

The ethics committee's top Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), said that if the Republicans rescind all three rules changes made in January, Democrats would vote to let the ethics committee operate. "That would return you to rules that were fashioned in a bipartisan way," he said. Without a full reversal, Democrats will demand creation of a bipartisan ethics task force, he said.

The ethics committee's chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), will support a vote on rule changes because he believes it is the only practical way to get the committee functioning, sources said. Hastings recently sought -- and received from the GOP leadership -- a large increase in the committee's budget and staff.

The vote planned for later this week will mark the second time in four months that House Republicans have changed a rule but then changed it back under public pressure because the changes were perceived as designed to protect DeLay.

Last November, Republicans rewrote an 11-year-old party rule that required a party leader to step aside if indicted, and instead made it possible for such a leader to maintain the party position. A grand jury in Austin was investigating the campaign finances of a political action committee created by DeLay and his political associates. After public objections to the maneuver, DeLay asked his party colleagues to rescind that change when they returned to Washington on Jan. 3 for the 109th Congress, and they did.

The next day, the full House approved -- on a largely party-line vote of 220 to 195 -- changes that Democrats contended would make it harder to launch investigations and would undermine their effectiveness.

A congressional aide said that changing the rules will mean "a couple of great days for Democrats" but that Republicans have calculated this will deny them long-term use of the ethics issue heading into next year's midterm elections.

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