House Republicans weakened their own ethics rules yesterday, pushing through language that would allow lobbyists to cater meals to members' offices and let charities pay for lawmakers to travel and stay at golf resorts and other locales.

House leaders tucked the changes into a broader rules package that Congress approves at the outset of each term. The move sparked a protest from Democrats, the House ethics committee chairman and officials from public watchdog groups, all of whom argued that the changes would undermine efforts to eliminate influence-peddling on Capitol Hill.

"It's just an erosion of the gift rule that is not justifiable," said Don Simon, acting president of the public interest group Common Cause. "It's a major retreat. It was done in a stealth fashion without any public scrutiny."

Lawmakers approved the rules change on a party-line vote of 221 to 203, after rejecting a Democratic attempt to scuttle it.

"Republicans believe they have such a safe and secure majority they want to undo some of the significant strides," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.).

Described as the "pizza rule" by both Republicans and Democrats, the measure would allow outside interests to pay for "perishable food or refreshments offered to members of an office." Last year, for example, a lobbying firm representing pharmaceutical interests sent in dinner for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's (R-Ill.) staff while they were working late on a prescription drug bill.

When Republicans took control of the House in 1995 they severely limited what members could accept from lobbyists and other outside groups. Under current rules, members and staff cannot accept a meal or gift exceeding $50, with a limit of $100 each year from any source.

The new rule modified these restrictions by divvying up the value of any given meal by the number of people who eat it. The change contradicts an advisory the ethics committee sent out in November, saying the $50 limit "cannot be evaded by . . . averaging the expense of gifts given to more than one member or staff person."

Ethics committee chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) said he had objected to the change, but was overruled by GOP leaders.

"We had trouble getting our messages returned out of the speaker's office," he said. "They should come to the ethics committee and ask what we think."

Hastert spokesman John Feehery defended the new rules by saying that congressional aides, not lawmakers, would benefit from them.

"What this is aimed at is the interns or the low-paid staff who doesn't make any money, and if someone wants to send some food in to them, they should be allowed to eat it," Feehery said.

But Hefley said he hopes to revisit the issue. "I don't think anyone can be bought for a piece of pizza, but I think it looks bad," he said. "Part of our job is to avoid the appearance of evil, as well as evil."

A separate change would allow any charity certified by the Internal Revenue Service to reimburse members for "travel and lodging expenses" for events where the net proceeds go toward the charity. Common Cause's Simon said this would return Congress to an era where lawmakers traveled to lavish resorts, often to play golf for free.

Hefley said he, too, has concerns about the measure. "It does open the gates to abuse," he said.