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House votes to change ethics rules

WASHINGTON—House Republicans paved the way Wednesday for a new ethics inquiry into House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's activities by yielding to Democrats in a fight over the rules governing such investigations.

DeLay, the Texas Republican who was admonished three times by the ethics committee last year, said earlier Wednesday that he'd welcome a new examination to answer questions about who paid for some of his overseas trips.

The House of Representatives voted 406-20 Wednesday evening to change the rules. It was unclear when an inquiry into DeLay's activities might begin.

To protest new rules governing the ethics panel that Democrats said were designed to protect DeLay, Democrats had refused to let the panel convene.

After weeks of national publicity about DeLay's questionable practices had begun to take a toll on the image of Republicans, the impasse broke Wednesday when House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced he was "willing to step back" from the new rules to end the committee deadlock. Though he didn't mention DeLay by name, Hastert said, "there's a member, especially on our side, that needs to have the process move forward so he can clear his name. Right now he can't clear his name."

The attention to DeLay stems largely from his association with lobbyists now under investigation, either in Washington or Texas. News reports have focused on several foreign trips that appear to have been paid for by lobbyists or foreign entities in violation of congressional rules.

"I look forward to providing the facts to the committee once it's up and running," DeLay said Wednesday. "I will be asking them to look at these issues as it not only pertains to me, but the entire House. ...Obviously there are questions that need to be answered by the ethics committee as to what trips can be taken, how can they be taken, under the rules of the ethics committee."

All five Republicans on the ethics committee have financial ties to DeLay, either contributing to his legal defense fund or receiving campaign contributions from him, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Pa., has received $15,000 from DeLay's political action committee since she became a candidate for Congress in 1999, according to the center.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., also has received $15,000. He was first elected in 2002. He has contributed $5,000 to DeLay's defense fund.

The panel's chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has received $8,930 from DeLay's political action committee and his campaign committee since 1993.

Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill. has received $2,764 from DeLay. She was elected in 1998.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a former chairman of the committee, has received $20 from DeLay. Smith has contributed $10,000 to Delay's defense fund.

Through his political action committee, DeLay has contributed more than $3 million to federal candidates since 1999, $2.6 million of that to House candidates.

The center said Wednesday that raises a possible conflict of interest for committee members who now will judge DeLay. The members called the contributions normal for the party's most generous leader. Others said their contributions to DeLay wouldn't affect their ethics committee work.

Hastert's retreat was a rare victory for House Democrats and a setback for Republicans.

Until this week, top GOP leaders had been steadfast in support of the new ethics rules, adopted in January, arguing that they were fairer and prevented politically inspired investigations.

Under rules in place last year, the ethics committee was obliged to begin an investigation even if the committee—comprised of five Democrats and five Republicans—deadlocked on whether one was warranted. Republicans changed that to require a committee majority to approve an investigation. Democrats complained that a partisan stalemate would squelch any probe.

"I think they just took the heat," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said. "I think there has been an editorial in every paper in the country saying this is wrong."

Hastert's decision sparked some dissension among House Republicans during a private meeting Wednesday morning in the Capitol. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., said some members "wondered whether this retreat signaled we were giving in."

"This was a big divide for the speaker to cross," Foley said. "There were probably more who wanted him to stay firm."

But Foley said the change was necessary. "The timing (of the Republican rules change) had created a cloud of suspicion," Foley said. "It put us all in a bad light."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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