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Democrats Look to Neutralize GOP Ethics Attacks

Correction Appended

House Democrats on Wednesday tried to neutralize a months-long Republican attack on senior Democratic appropriators’ ties to the now-defunct lobbying firm PMA Group by calling on the ethics committee to disclose whether it is investigating the matter.

The Democrats’ resolution, offered by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) with the backing of leadership, would give the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct 45 days to report on whether it is probing PMA’s dealings with the lawmakers. Lawmakers voted 270-134 to send the measure to the ethics committee, with 28 Republicans crossing the aisle to support it.

But GOP leaders argued that because lawmakers sent the bill to the ethics panel, instead of passing it directly, the panel would need to approve it and then refer it back to the full House for approval before it would take effect. “This is a joke,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “It is the tiniest speck of political cover from a Democratic leadership that has voted time after time to block a real investigation of PMA.”

Democratic aides countered that while the Republican critique is technically correct, the ethics panel would act on the resolution in the given time frame because a majority of the chamber — in voting for the resolution — had effectively called for such a move.

House Democratic leaders have been under increasing pressure to confront the scandal surrounding PMA and its history with Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) and panel members Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.).

The firm and its clients gave the trio about $4.8 million in campaign contributions over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, helped those clients secure tens of millions of dollars in targeted projects. Visclosky on Friday acknowledged that his Congressional and campaign offices — and some staffers — have been subpoenaed as part of a federal grand jury probe into the matter. One of those staffers, his longtime chief of staff, Chuck Brimmer, has since resigned, and Visclosky announced Tuesday that he is handing off control of the energy and water spending bill while the investigation proceeds.

With the scandal building steam, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has kept the heat on Democratic top brass by repeatedly forcing votes to jump-start an ethics inquiry. His resolutions have peeled off a slow but steadily rising roster of Democrats. Flake was set to take his ninth stab at forcing the investigation but pulled back Wednesday because of the “confusion on the floor over this,” spokesman Matt Specht said. Flake would seek a new vote on his resolution soon, Specht said.

Early on, the Arizona Republican sought to work with Hoyer to reach an accommodation that both sides could support. And as Flake began his floor assault in late winter, Hoyer argued in two leadership meetings that Democrats should embrace the resolution to give the majority cover as the scandal grew, sources familiar with those sessions have said.

Hoyer even advised Flake to narrow the scope of his earliest draft to make it more palatable. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) countered that the Flake measure would license partisans to pursue ethics witch hunts down the line, and Democrats remained opposed.

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