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House Democrats faced yet another setback Wednesday for a proposed independent ethics office, as party leaders failed to rally support for the measure and scrubbed a scheduled floor vote for the second time in as many weeks.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) asserted late Wednesday that Democrats would pass the bill, with the help of more time to convince rank-and-file Members.
"There is a great deal of concern, as you would expect," he said. "We're continuing to have discussions. I think we're going to be fine."
Democratic sources said the measure will be rescheduled for early next week.
The bill, which would create an Office of Congressional Ethics to initiate investigations and issue recommendations to the full ethics committee, initially had been scheduled for a floor vote last week. Leadership postponed the vote in the face of shaky support from Democrats and a last-minute GOP alternative.
Subsequently, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), chairman of a task force assigned to review the House ethics process, introduced a series of amendments on Monday aimed primarily at criticisms that the new office could be used as a partisan hit machine.
Among the changes, members of the six-member office would be assigned by both the Speaker and Minority Leader, and one member of each party would be required to endorse any investigation before it could begin. The alterations appeared to sway some Democrats who had voiced objections to the measure, including House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who said on Wednesday that she would vote for the ethics office.
The New York lawmaker said late Tuesday night that the amendments did "not totally" address her concerns — Slaughter had questioned the need for an independent office rather than a House entity — but added: "I'm not going to get everything I want."
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who had said last week that he would vote against the ethics measures, said on Wednesday that he now is undecided.
"The Democratic leadership is trying desperately to foster a compromise that will attract the support of a majority of our Caucus and bring over Republicans as well, and it is a very, very difficult job," Cleaver said. He said of the amendments: "They're moving in a much better direction."
Another Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, remained displeased with additional ethics reform, asserting that more stringent rules instituted last fall, including a strict gift ban, are sufficient.
But he said many Members would feel compelled to vote in favor of the bill: "In the end, we're put between a rock and a hard place." But the alterations did not sway all critics, including Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) who said on Tuesday that he remained opposed to the ethics office.
In addition, House Republicans have complained that the measure does not include any aspects of their alternative bill — which had targeted changes to the ethics committee itself, rather than an independent office — and asserted Democrats did not consult with them since delaying the original bill.
"The Pelosi-Capuano proposal — particularly with the new 'tweaks' — is a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). "We need ethics reform with teeth, like Rep. Lamar Smith's [R-Texas] proposal, which will make certain that unethical Members of Congress face real investigation from real law enforcement, like the FBI."
Under the alternative offered by Smith, who served as the top Republican on the ethics task force, the ethics committee would be required to forward any investigation deadlocked for more than 90 days to the Justice Department.
Democrats dismissed GOP complaints, pointing out that the Republican proposal was not introduced until last week, nearly three months after Capuano authored their legislation.
"I think it is fair to say there has not been any bipartisan sort of meeting of the minds," Hoyer said. "For a number of reasons, essentially being that for a year we had this bipartisan committee and, unfortunately, the Republicans did not engage. Then the day ... of this bill coming to the floor, they put a proposal ... on the table."