ASHINGTON, Jan. 4 - House Republicans
pushed through a significant change in the handling of ethics
complaints over strong Democratic objections Tuesday as the 109th
Congress convened with a burst of pomp and partisanship.
The House, on a vote of 220 to 195, enacted a change that would
effectively dismiss a complaint in the event of a deadlock in the
ethics committee, which is equally divided between Democrats and
Republicans. Its approval came after a retreat by Republicans on
Monday on other proposed ethics revisions.
At the heart of both actions were calculations about how far
Republicans should go to protect the House majority leader,
Representative Tom DeLay. Many party members were unhappy with the
ethics committee for the three admonishments it delivered to Mr.
DeLay last year.
At the same time, some Republicans were uncomfortable retaining a
party rule adopted in November that was intended to shield Mr. DeLay
from having to step down from his leadership post if he was indicted
in a campaign finance investigation in Texas. Republicans said the
new approach to handling a deadlock on the ethics panel would
protect lawmakers from purely partisan attacks.
"This change restores the presumption of innocence in our
process," said Representative David Dreier of California, chairman
of the Rules Committee.
Democrats, who said Republicans backed off on the other rule
proposals only under fire, said the change approved would badly
hobble a panel already considered weak.
"There should be no misunderstanding," said Representative Alan
B. Mollohan of West Virginia, senior Democrat on the ethics
committee. "These provisions that remain would seriously undermine
the ethics process in the House."
Under the system instituted in 1997, if no action is taken on a
complaint within 45 days, a preliminary investigation is started.
The new approach would require an affirmative vote by the panel to
begin an investigation, meaning at least one committee member
belonging to the same party as the lawmaker at the center of the
complaint would have to join in backing an inquiry or the complaint
"If these changes had been in place in the last Congress, no
ethics complaints would have seen the light of day," said
Representative Louise M. Slaughter of New York, senior Democrat on
the Rules Committee.
The chairman of the ethics panel, Representative Joel Hefley,
Republican of Colorado, withdrew his earlier opposition to the
changes, saying he believed that the most serious threat to the
committee's authority had been dropped. On Monday, Republicans
decided not to proceed with a change that would have eliminated a
broad standard of conduct used in many previous ethics cases.
But Mr. Hefley continued to express misgivings about the plan
that was adopted. "I think that creates a problem in trying to
implement a fair and even-handed process," he said.
Republicans expect that Mr. Hefley, who presided over the cases
involving Mr. DeLay, will soon be removed as chairman.
In remarks on the floor, Mr. DeLay, who surprised his colleagues
Monday by asking that the internal party rule intended to protect
him be reversed, backed the ethics rules package. But he said he
also expected continuing Democratic attacks.
"It is a new year," Mr. DeLay said, "but an old game and one to
which we cannot afford to stoop."
Republican lawmakers and senior aides said rising unease among
rank-and-file Republicans over last November's rule change, which
would have allowed party leaders to hold their post even if
indicted, led Mr. DeLay to ask for its reversal.
The lawmakers and other officials said many House members were
struggling with second thoughts after voting to protect Mr. DeLay,
spurred by criticism from constituents. Several said they were ready
to reject the ethics rules package as a potential major
Mr. DeLay, senior aides said, was not asked or encouraged to call
for the party rule to be rescinded. But, calculating that he was
unlikely to be charged in the Texas case, he decided to try and ease
the tension among his fellow Republicans by taking the initiative.
He told them flatly at the closed session that he did not expect to
be charged. Top aides and others said that the idea of backtracking
was first raised by Mr. DeLay's staff a few weeks ago.
The decision by Mr. DeLay was applauded both by lawmakers who had
approved the rules change last year as well as his allies who saw
the reversal as a way to deprive Democrats of an avenue of
"I think it takes the politics off the table," said
Representative Thomas M. Reynolds, Republican of New York.
Leadership aides said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who met with Mr.
DeLay before the majority leader asked for the new party rule to be
rescinded, did not pressure Mr. DeLay.
The floor fight over the ethics changes came after both the House
and Senate were gaveled into order at noon before throngs of
relatives and supporters eager to witness the swearing in of 50
newly elected House members and senators.
In the Senate, Republicans celebrated their enhanced majority as
seven Republican freshmen and two Democrats along with the
incumbents re-elected in November were sworn in by Vice President
Dick Cheney. While the Senate was for a day absent of the sharp
exchanges that were heard in the House in the first hours of the
Congress, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, made
it clear that he did not intend to dodge future fights.
As he laid out the Republican agenda, Dr. Frist said he would no
longer allow Democrats to filibuster any of President Bush's
judicial nominees. He said he chose not to follow recommendations to
immediately move to change the rules to bar filibusters, saying he
wanted to give Democrats the opportunity to show "self-restraint" on
Republicans in the House and the Senate said they would be
aggressive in working with Mr. Bush, singling out changes in Social
Security and the tax code as priorities.
"In this Congress, big plans will stir men's blood," Mr. Hastert
said after he was re-elected speaker.