Leaders of the House ethics committee appeared deadlocked yesterday on whether to launch a formal inquiry into a three-month-old complaint against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). The panel's Republican chairman and top Democrat announced they would ask the full committee to rule on whether to dismiss the complaint or assign it to an investigative subcommittee.

But if that committee, composed of five Republicans and five Democrats, deadlocks, the complaint would not be formally dismissed but would remain in limbo, perhaps indefinitely, according to aides familiar with the ethics process.

Committee Chairman Joel Hefley (Colo.) and ranking Democrat Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.) had the authority to drop the complaint or assign it to a subcommittee, which would investigate the charges and recommend action. Yesterday's announcement indicated that the two men could not agree after three months of quiet inquiry.

"Because of the numerous allegations made in the complaint," they said in a statement, "and our desire that our fact-gathering activities . . . be as thorough as possible, we found it necessary to use the entire 90-day period . . . for these activities. In the near future we will be presenting to the committee the information we have obtained and recommendations for committee action."

Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.) filed the complaint against DeLay in mid-June. It accused him of soliciting campaign contributions in return for legislative favors; laundering illegal campaign contributions through a Texas political action committee; and improperly involving a federal agency in a Texas partisan matter.

DeLay denied any wrongdoing, and his supporters accused Bell of seeking revenge after losing his reelection bid in the March Democratic primary. DeLay played a major role in the 2003 redrawing of Texas's U.S. House districts in order to benefit Republicans. Bell, a first-term lawmaker, said revenge was not his motive.

Bell's ethics complaint was the first known to be filed by a lawmaker against a House leader since 1997. In that year, Congress barred outsiders from filing complaints, and both political parties agreed to an unwritten truce to end a long series of ethics charges and countercharges.

Some lawmakers thought Bell's complaint might trigger a new ethics war, but House GOP leaders decided to lie low and hope the matter would fade away.

Several public interest groups have pressed the ethics panel to dig deeply into Bell's allegations. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington placed full-page ads, calling for action, in newspapers in Hefley's and Mollohan's districts Sunday.

The claims against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) were filed by first-term Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.)