A staffing dispute that has helped shut down the U.S. House of Representatives ethics committee and stall a long overdue investigation of scandal-ridden House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is near resolution.

“I think we have a deal,” Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said after talks with the panel’s chairman, Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings.

Hastings had no immediate comment.

Mollohan said in a telephone interview that they had reached an “agreement in principle” on staffing and hoped to sign “a memorandum of understanding” as early as on Thursday.

The staffing dispute, along with a now-resolved impasse over rules, has effectively shut down the panel most of this year, limiting it to only a couple of meetings and preventing it from beginning any new investigations.

DeLay, admonished by the panel on three separate matters last year, has faced new questions this year about ties to lobbyists and foreign trips paid by outside groups.

The Texas Republican has denied any wrongdoing and has said he was anxious to present his case to the committee.

DeLay has also accused Democrats of trying to push back any inquiry until next year when and he and other lawmakers will be up for re-election.

Democrats have made DeLay a top target in the 2006 elections, but have rejected suggestions that they have dragged their feet.

They have blamed Republicans for the staffing dispute, while Republicans have charged that Democrats have been at fault.

Mollohan said Democrats merely want the committee to follow its own rules, and that the “agreement in principle” he and Hastings reached would do that.

In a statement, Mollohan said, “I am pleased to report that we reached an agreement in principle that the person ultimately hired as the committee’s chief counsel-staff director would be in charge of the professional staff, and that our own personal designees — the so-called ‘shared staff’ — would have no managerial or supervisory role over that professional, nonpartisan staff.”

“Although we have made significant progress, our agreement is not final, as some issues require further discussion,” Mollohan said. “I look forward to working with the chairman to reach a formal agreement that will allow us to proceed with the committee’s crucially important work.”

Mollohan refused to discuss any possible probe of DeLay, but said, “once the staffing is complete, then the committee is prepared to fulfill all its responsibilities.”

Mollohan said a staff could be hired within “several” weeks after the signing of a formal agreement.