GOP Leaders Flip Flop on Ethics Rule Changes

House Republicans, under fire from Democrats and some members of their own party, are stepping back from plans to significantly relax ethics rules that ensnared Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

GOP leaders stressed that they didn’t want the ethics issue to sidetrack their greater goals for this session of Congress, such as overhauling the Social Security system.

“It would have been the right thing to do, but it was becoming a distraction,” said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., referring to a relaxation in ethics rules including one that would have allowed party heads to retain their posts even if indicted.

The House and Senate were to open the 109th session of Congress at noon Tuesday with the swearing-in of new members, a ceremony that makes official the GOP gains of the November elections. Republicans picked up four seats in the Senate, to reach 55, and will command 232 of the 435 House seats, an increase of three.

The House will then take up the GOP-proposed rules changes, which, despite the modifications made by Republicans at a closed-door meeting Monday, are likely to generate Democratic protests.

The proposals will make it harder to proceed with an ethics investigation by requiring a majority vote of the evenly divided ethics committee. The current system allows an investigation to begin automatically if there is no action within 45 days.

Among other provisions of the package, lawmakers and their staff would be able to take a relative along on lobbyist-financed trips. Currently, they can be accompanied only by a spouse or child.

Another provision would expand the authority of the committee that oversees homeland security issues, a move that was strongly backed by the Sept. 11 Commission, which complained that too many committees in Congress have jurisdiction over security matters.

But the likelihood of a bitter fight over ethics was largely averted when DeLay, R-Texas, and Hastert made two startling announcements at the beginning of the GOP meeting.

First DeLay asked Republicans to overturn the party rule, enacted last November on his behalf, that allows party heads to retain their posts even if indicted. Three of DeLay’s Texas associates have been indicted by a grand jury in Austin on fund-raising violation charges.

DeLay’s spokesman, Jonathan Grella, said DeLay was confident that he would not be indicted, and decided to seek the elimination of the rule protecting him because he didn’t want to give Democrats an issue.

“We want to make sure the substance comes first. Anything that could undermine our agenda needs to be nipped in the bud,” said Grella.

DeLay’s action won praise from his GOP colleagues. House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., said DeLay “made a very courageous statement that allows us to put this issue to rest.”

Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who opposed the rules changes, said: “It’s a mark of a leader to take a bullet for the team and not for the team to take a bullet for the leader.”

Secondly, Hastert withdrew a proposal that would have made it tougher to rebuke a member of the House for misconduct. Here too the dispute revolved around DeLay.

The ethics panel, while saying the DeLay broke no rule or law, has criticized him in the past year for his tactics in trying to win the vote of a colleague, for giving the impression of a link between donations and support for legislation, and for his office’s contact with federal aviation officials, seeking their intervention in a Texas political dispute.

The code of conduct that was retained by the Republicans requires lawmakers and employees to conduct themselves “at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.” Some Republicans believed the standard is too general and wanted any discipline to depend on a more specific finding of wrongdoing.

Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, said Republicans pulled back on the discipline rule because “the issue simply became too hot for them to handle.”

Congressional watchdog groups have been strongly critical of the GOP-proposed ethics changes.

Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, at a news conference joined by eight other groups Monday, said one change the Republicans did accept – to effectively kill an investigation if there is a tie vote among committee members – “is a recipe for deadlock and gridlock in the system.”

Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said a more compelling reason for keeping the ethics rules was that members were hearing concerns from voters. “Constituents reacted and the House, and more importantly the House leadership, responded accordingly,” he said.