Can Ney’s ouster save GOP?


    The House Republican leadership has achieved its goal of separating
    Rep. Bob Ney, the committee chairman implicated in a burgeoning
    scandal, from GOP efforts to change how Congress interacts with
    lobbyists and their clients.

    With Ney’s decision _ under pressure
    _ to temporarily step down from chairing the powerful House
    Administration Committee, the six-term Ohio Republican won’t have any
    control over his party’s efforts to stem the damage caused by disgraced
    GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

    As administration committee chairman,
    Ney would have overseen those reforms. House Speaker Dennis Hastert,
    R-Ill., wanted to make sure that didn’t happen and asked Ney last week
    to step aside as chairman of the panel.

    Abramoff’s recent guilty
    plea to charges stemming from his lobbying has triggered a competition
    between the two political parties to grab the mantle of reform.

    Congressional
    Democrats are expected to unveil their own plan this week, including a
    ban on lobbyist gifts – meals, sporting event tickets and travel
    included – to lawmakers.

    Even before the announcement, aides to
    the Senate Democratic Leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, circulated a
    memo Monday night saying he will implement the change immediately for
    his own staff.

    “No employee in Sen. Reid’s federal offices will be allowed to receive any meals, gifts or travel from lobbyists,” it said.

    In
    pleading guilty to three felonies here this month, Abramoff put Ney at
    the center of the investigation. Abramoff swore that he and associates
    plied Ney with campaign donations, lavish free travel, entertainment
    and meals in exchange for official acts. Ney has denied any wrongdoing.

    Some
    of Ney’s alleged ties to Abramoff involved his chairmanship of the
    committee, such as the lucrative contract he gave to an Abramoff client
    in 2003 to improve wireless telephone reception in House buildings.

    Ney said Sunday the allegations against him had become a distraction from the Republican reform effort.

    “There’s
    a lot of people that are having some heartburn with all the publicity
    and if they have heartburn I can be the Rolaids,” Ney said in an
    interview with The Associated Press Radio Network from his home in
    Heath, Ohio.

    “I’ll just step aside and someone can run the committee and then I feel once I’m cleared, I’ll be able to come back,” he said.

    Spokesmen
    for Hastert and House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., did not return
    calls Sunday night seeking comment on Ney’s decision.

    Rep. Vernon
    Ehlers, R-Mich., is the next highest-ranking Republican on the
    administration committee. The moderate Republican from the Grand Rapids
    area may be best known for spearheading legislation to clean up
    sediment in the Great Lakes. He’s been in the House since 1993.

    The
    administration committee doles out House contracts, and oversees
    federal elections, the budgets of other committees and even members
    parking spaces. Ney had been known as the “Mayor of Capitol Hill” for
    the control he had.

    Ney tried to get ahead of the allegations
    last summer by directing the House clerk to set up an electronic system
    for House members to disclose privately paid travel. The system still
    isn’t in place and trips are still filed on paper, in binders only
    available in the basement of a House office building.

    “I pushed
    about nine months ago to have lobby reform, but nobody really would
    listen to me,” Ney said Sunday. “I wanted to do it then because that
    way it’s made much more clear so members don’t get into positions like
    I have.”

    But Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat on
    the House ethics committee, has told the AP better disclosure won’t
    stop members from breaking the rules and Ney’s plan was an effort to
    blame the system for unethical behavior.

    Ney’s decision comes as
    three House Republicans are waging a spirited campaign to replace Rep.
    Tom DeLay of Texas as majority leader. DeLay was forced by party rules
    to step aside after he was indicted by a state grand jury in Texas for
    alleged violation of campaign finance laws.

    DeLay also is a longtime friend of Abramoff and some of DeLay’s former aides have been charged in the Abramoff investigation.

    A
    GOP leadership aide said Friday that House Speaker Dennis Hastert was
    pressuring Ney to step aside because he believes it would be
    inappropriate for him to head the committee with jurisdiction over the
    Republican reform agenda.

    _____

    AP Special correspondent David Espo conributed to this story.

    © 2006 The Associated Press