April 27, 2005
WASHINGTON - House Speaker Dennis Hastert, leading a Republican retreat, said Wednesday he stands ready to scrap controversial new ethics rules, possibly by day's end.
"I'm willing to step back," Hastert told reporters after a closed-door meeting with members of the GOP rank and file.
Later, in a brief Capitol interview, he said he expected the full House to vote on reversing the rules. Asked whether that would take place later in the day, he replied, "I hope so."
Democrats charge that rules changes pushed through the House by Republicans earlier this year were designed to shelter Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and have stopped the ethics committee from conducting business in retaliation. The powerful Texan was admonished by the panel three times last year and faces scrutiny this year over overseas travel. He has denied any wrongdoing.
It was not immediately clear whether Hastert's concessions would satisfy Democrats.
Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the ethics committee, said, "To this point the speaker's actions have been positive. The proposal will be considered and evaluated by the bipartisan yardstick."
At the same time, Mollohan as well as aides to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi noted that Republicans had fired two holdover staff members unilaterally. They said they wanted any new staff to be hired by bipartisan agreement.
Hastert bristled at talk of Democrats dictating committee staffing. "If they get one thing, they'll want another," he told The Associated Press.
"We raised their staffing. They have the ability to hire more staff," he added, referring to a large increase in the committee's budget.
The speaker drew little dissent from members of his rank and file at the closed-door meeting where he outlined his intentions.
Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., said the speaker told fellow Republicans it was important to resolve the ethics committee deadlock because it was becoming a distraction for the party at a time when it is attempting to accomplish its legislative goals.
He praised Hastert for being willing to "pivot" on the issue.
Pelosi told reporters that Republicans had decided to retreat under pressure. "I think they just took the heat," she said. "I think there has been an editorial in every paper in the country saying this is wrong."
Republicans have heatedly denied that the rules changes were designed with DeLay in mind, and Hastert told reporters outside the meeting Wednesday that his intention had been to create a new set of rules that was fair to all lawmakers, regardless of party. Given Democratic criticism, he said, "I'm willing to step back."
"We need to move forward with an ethics process," he added.
Referring to DeLay, Hastert said that one prominent Republican needed a functioning ethics committee because "right now he can't clear his name."
DeLay, admonished by the ethics committee three times last year, faces new scrutiny. He has denied wrongdoing in the face of questions surrounding trips that he took overseas. DeLay also has said that he is eager to appear and answer questions before the chairman and senior Democrat on the ethics panel.
Despite the retreat, it was not immediately clear whether Hastert's actions would end the deadlock that has stymied the committee's work.
In a letter to the speaker dated April 12 but kept private, Pelosi also called on the Illinois Republican to urge Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the panel's chairman, to abandon plans to name his chief as staff director for the committee.
"I cannot imagine a staffing arrangement more damaging to the nonpartisan character of the committee," she wrote in the letter.
Republicans had said before the meeting that the GOP leadership was considering a plan to allow the entire House to vote on reverting to the old rules. It was also possible that Hastert would decide to allow individual votes on each of the three changes that Democrats objected to.
The most controversial of the three rules changes created a system under which an ethics complaint would automatically be dismissed unless a majority of the panel voted to act on it within 45 days. Under the old rule, a complaint would automatically trigger an investigation unless the panel voted to dismiss it within 45 days.
Republicans said the old rule created an environment in which lawmakers who were falsely accused could not be exonerated without a bipartisan vote of the committee. But Democrats said the new rules made it easy for Republicans to bury complaints against DeLay.
The committee has 10 members, five from each party, meaning that neither side can provide a majority on its own.