After a long silence on the unfolding federal probe of the PMA Group and its ties to senior Democrats, House Democratic leaders are cobbling together a defense to offer political cover to their rank and file.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has enlisted Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) to consult with House Democrats on why they should continue to resist Republican demands for an ethics committee investigation into the matter.
Berman, formerly the top Democrat on that panel, delivered a briefing to some Democrats before the two-week recess, and he plans to elaborate on that message once lawmakers get back to town, senior Democratic sources said.
The pushback reflects growing angst in the Democratic Caucus over persistent attempts by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to force an ethics probe of the alleged scandal.
The Arizona Republican gathered support from only 17 Democrats back in February when he first offered a privileged resolution to examine the nexus between earmarks and fundraising. But with the PMA affair continuing to make headlines, Democratic defections have mounted, reaching 27 on Flakes sixth and latest attempt on April 1.
The next day, Berman rose toward the end of a Democratic Caucus meeting and laid out a case against the Flake resolutions.
We have rules, he told the lawmakers, arguing that Democratic reforms have rehabilitated the ethics process, according to sources in the room. He said the Flake resolutions would set a precedent for political witch-hunts that could ensnare innocent lawmakers for typical fundraising activities.
Berman added that a Justice Department investigation would preempt a review by the ethics committee, and he said that if Flake were serious about a probe, he could prompt one by filing a complaint with the ethics committee.
He really defended the institution and the process, a Democratic leadership aide said. Berman spokeswoman Gene Smith declined to comment.
While Democrats privately lambaste the Flake resolutions as partisan cheap shots, Flake himself has argued that the issue he is seeking to tackle is bipartisan. Spokesman Matthew Specht said Flake has opted against filing an ethics complaint because such a move would require him to name names.
Given that Congressman Flake is targeting the relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions not the actions of any specific Members he believes privileged resolutions are a more appropriate way to address the problem, Specht said.
Flake plans to force more votes once Congress resumes. For Democrats, it remains to be seen whether reasoned retorts will quell mounting anxiety about their political exposure in the matter.
Democrats reclaimed the majority and then padded it by promising to change the way Washington works, a fact GOPers have relished pointing out with each new development in this scandal and others, most notably one centered on Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).
In the face of criticism, some Democratic aides said their leaders need to provide a credible alternative to the Flake resolution.
Theres a sense among some of the Members that attentions not being paid to the issue by leadership, said an aide to one lawmaker who originally opposed the Flake resolution, but has since decided to support it to pressure leadership to act.
At the end of the day, they want to be for something, one senior Democratic aide said. Theres some frustration that we havent been able to go on the offense on this, and I think theres a sense out there that our guys havent been armed with enough information to push back on what Republicans are doing.
Another aide said Democrats are now at a precipice where we need to rethink our strategy and maybe do something more than just table the motions.