The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives, in a rare display of guilt, dropped new, relaxed ethics rules Wednesday, clearing the way for yet another probe of their scandal-ridden majority leader — the ethics-challenged Texan Tom DeLay.
On a vote of 406-20, members rescinded those rules — pushed through in January by Republicans — to end a stalemate that has prevented the House ethics committee from operating this year.
Despite Republican claims that the rules would make the ethics process fairer for all, Democrats had argued that they would make it more difficult to investigate any member, and had prevented the committee from formally organizing.
“I’m willing to step back,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert told reporters in leading the Republican retreat. “There are issues out there that need to be discussed.”
“I think there is a member, especially on our side, that needs to have the process move forward so he can clear his name,” Hastert of Illinois said without naming DeLay.
Admonished by the House ethics committee last year on three separate matters, DeLay, a Republican, has faced new questions in the past several weeks on ties to lobbyists and foreign trips funded by outside groups.
DeLay, who has denied any wrongdoing, repeated on Wednesday that he would welcome the opportunity to put the matter before the committee and “set the record straight.”
In rescinding the new ethics rules drafted by Republicans, the House returned to its old rules, crafted on a bipartisan basis.
The ethics committee cannot begin any investigation until it formally organizes, perhaps next week. But Delay stressed he was ready to put it to work.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said, “The decision of the Republican leadership to abandon its misguided attempt to change bipartisan ethics rules is a victory for the American people.”
Said Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat: “The speaker has finally relented to the public pressure.”
The controversy has put Republicans on the defensive while Democrats have responded by making DeLay a top target in the 2006 congressional elections.
DeLay said that on a visit to his Texas district last weekend, constituents told him: “Hang in there. We’re with you.”
While most House Republicans have publicly supported DeLay, at least two have suggested that he step aside as leader, at least until the ethics questions are resolved.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week found that 41 percent of those surveyed thought DeLay should step down as majority leader while 32 percent said he should remain in the job.
One key Republican rule change that had upset Democrats was one that would require a complaint to be dismissed after 45 days if the 10-member ethics committee — five Democrats and five Republicans — deadlocked. Previously, the complaint would remain before the committee.
Another would have prevented the committee from prohibiting an attorney from representing more than one party in an ethics probe, while a third would have required members to be notified before criticized in an ethics report.
In a letter to Pelosi on Wednesday, Hastert said these rules would have improved due process, and expressed hope once the committee gets back to work “it will find time to revisit these changes.”
Democrats said they would consider changes, provided it is on a bipartisan basis.