WASHINGTON—In a stunning reversal that reflected fears of a public backlash, House Republicans on Monday rescinded an ethics rule adopted in November that allowed party leaders and chairmen to retain their posts if they were indicted for illegal behavior.
The lawmakers, meeting behind closed doors in the House chamber, took the surprise step at the request of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the powerful Texan whom Republicans had in mind when they passed the rules change in the first place.
The Republicans also backed away from a proposal that would have made it harder to punish lawmakers for ethical breaches. It appeared, however, that they were still inclined to adopt another change that would make it easier to kill an ethics complaint against a member of Congress.
The decisions illustrated growing Republican fears that any wholesale change in ethics rules would draw continued attention to rebukes levied against DeLay by the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct last year. Republicans said that controversy, if kept alive, would detract from the rest of their ambitious policy agenda.
"It's never a good idea when you're involved in a road race or any other athletic contest to tie your shoelaces together. It's not a good thing to do right out of the gate," said Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz.
Republicans credited DeLay on Monday for pulling them out of a difficult spot with their constituents. Few of them had objected in November when they decided to change a decade-old rule that required any indicted congressional leader to relinquish his or her leadership post. The rule change was meant to show gratitude toward DeLay, who's credited for Republican gains in the November election but who's been linked to an investigation into political fund raising in Texas.
DeLay hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing in the case, which centers on the political action committee he founded to help finance the Republican takeover of the Texas legislature. And the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct found that he didn't break the law or run afoul of House rules.
But Democrats and congressional watchdog groups made it clear the issue wouldn't go away easily. DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said Monday that DeLay gave the rule change a great deal of thought during the Christmas break and decided to ask members to rescind it.
"It is a mark of a leader to take a bullet for the team rather than make the team take a bullet for him," said Rep. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill.
The proposed rules changes that lawmakers were debating Monday night were designed to avoid a repeat of the type of complaints filed against DeLay, which resulted in three admonishments against him. One change would have allowed a lawmaker to be rebuked only if his or her behavior specifically violated the law or a House rule of conduct.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., withdrew that proposal Monday.
Republicans are expected to support another change that would require the chairman of the ethics committee and the ranking member from the other party to agree within 45 days that a complaint has merit before proceeding to a full investigation. The provision would eliminate a current requirement that if the committee takes no action within 45 days, then the complaint automatically is investigated. Watchdog groups complain that such a change would mean complaints would die in partisan gridlock. That proposal will go before the full House of Representatives for a vote Tuesday.
The committee's Republican chairman, Joel Hefley of Colorado, issued a statement Monday denouncing the changes. "Ethics reform must be bipartisan and this package is not bipartisan," Hefley said. "If the House is to have a meaningful, bipartisan ethics process, changes of this magnitude can be made ... only after thoughtful, careful consideration on a bipartisan basis."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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