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GOP Blinks on Ethics Changes

Retreating in the face of a political furor and trepidation within their ranks, House GOP leaders surprisingly reversed themselves Monday night and reinstituted a party rule that requires any member of the leadership who is indicted to step down from his or her post. The rule change was originally made in late 2004 to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who is under investigation for his role in influencing 2002 state legislative races in Texas.

Republicans also backed down from a proposed change to House rules that would have prevented the ethics committee from punishing any Member who brings discredit on the House but does not violate a specific law or regulation. The ethics committee often cites the catch-all authority in House Rule XXIII, the official “Code of Conduct,” in its rulings critical of lawmakers’ conduct.

After weeks of political attacks from Democrats and government watchdog groups, DeLay himself offered the proposal to restore GOP Conference rules on indicted leaders during a meeting of all House Republicans on Monday night. It was accepted unanimously.

“[DeLay] felt that the arguments made this fall were still legitimate, but that the best thing for us was to restore the old rule and deny Democrats their lone issue,” said Jonathan Grella, DeLay’s spokesman.

Another top House GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the reasons for the abrupt about-face were obvious. “The unsophisticated, transparent game the Democrats want to play, we will not partake in it,” said the GOP aide. Democrats from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) down had been bashing Republicans on the indictment rule change since it was adopted Nov. 17.

Democrats immediately claimed a political victory Monday night.

“Even for the Republicans, it was too hot for them to handle,” said Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s spokesman. “It was really unthinkable that their first act after the election was to weaken ethics standards.”

As for the changes to ethics rules and the use of Official Code of Conduct in ethics investigations, there was significant opposition from within GOP ranks, as well as from Democrats and outside groups.

Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, came out publicly against the proposed rule change.

“I am opposed to the ethics provisions in the draft rules package circulated by the Rules Committee and intend to vote against it on the House floor tomorrow,” Hefley said in a statement released by his office Monday afternoon. Hefley was travelling and could not attend Monday night’s GOP Conference meeting, where he was scheduled to offer two amendments aimed at blocking the rules changes.

Hefley, who has acknowledged as valid some GOP criticism of the ethics process, added: “However, this is not the way to effect meaningful reform. Ethics reform must be bipartisan and this package is not bipartisan. If the House is to have a meaningful, bipartisan ethics process, changes of this magnitude can be made — as they were made in 1997 and 1989 — only after thoughtful, careful consideration on a bipartisan basis."

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) also came out against the proposal to alter the use of the official Code of Conduct standard.

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