Thou Shalt Not Discipline Republicans

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, sending a message that Republicans should not be subject to Congressional rules, is considering replacing the chairman of the ethics committee, which admonished Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is the focus of a grand jury probe into his campaign finance practices.

Hastert has not yet made up his mind about whether to replace Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., when Congress reconvenes on Tuesday, his spokesman said.

“The speaker thinks that Chairman Hefley has done a terrific job,” Hastert spokesman John Feehery said Thursday. “If he makes that decision, it will be because of the rules, not for any other reason.”

Hastert believes House rules say time is up on Hefley’s tenure on the committee, Feehery said. That interpretation of the rules is likely to be disputed, but in any case the speaker can install a new chairman at his discretion.

“It is our responsibility to uphold a high ethical standard,” said DeLay’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. “Removing a chair of the Ethics Committee for upholding that standard would be a stain on the House of Representatives.”

The shadow of grand jury action hovers over DeLay as a Texas state grand jury probe continues under the direction of prosecutor Ronnie Earle, a Democrat.

In September, grand jurors indicted three DeLay associates and eight corporations in an investigation of allegedly illegal corporate contributions to a political action committee associated with DeLay. On Thursday in Texas, a judge accepted a deal in which prosecutors dropped charges against one of the eight corporations, Sears, Roebuck and Co., in exchange for its cooperation in the investigation.

Earlier, prosecutors made a similar deal to drop charges against another of the eight companies, Diversified Collections Services Inc.

Nicknamed “the Hammer” for his persuasive style with House members who might resist his positions, the majority leader can be of invaluable help with members’ legislation, their committee assignments, their chairmanships and their campaign war chests.

In October, Hefley co-authored two committee admonishments of DeLay.

In one, the panel said DeLay had created the appearance of linking political donations to a legislative favor, and had improperly gotten the Federal Aviation Administration to intervene in a Texas political dispute.

In the other admonishment, the ethics committee chastised DeLay for offering to support the House candidacy of Michigan Republican Rep. Nick Smith’s son in return for the lawmaker’s vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

The panel said DeLay did not break House rules.

Emboldened by GOP gains in the November election, House Republicans moved quickly to thank DeLay by adopting a new rule saying, in effect, a state grand jury indictment on a felony charge should not automatically strip the majority leader of his title.