Wed, Jan 05, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Republicans toughen standards rule

AP , WASHINGTON

Republicans in the US House of Representatives suddenly reversed course and decided to retain a tough standard for lawmaker discipline and reinstate a rule that would force Majority Leader Tom DeLay to step aside if indicted by a Texas grand jury.

The surprise dual decisions were made Monday by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and by DeLay.

In November, Republicans had changed a party rule so DeLay could retain his leadership post if indicted by a grand jury in Austin that charged three of the Texas Republican's associates.

When Republicans began their closed-door meeting Monday night, leaders were considering a rules change that would have made it tougher to rebuke a House member for misconduct. The proposal would have required a more specific finding of ethical violations.

Republicans gave no indication before the meeting that the indictment rule would be changed. Even more surprising was DeLay's decision to make the proposal himself.

Jonathan Grella, a DeLay spokesman, said DeLay still believed it was legitimate to allow a leader to retain his post while under indictment. But Grella said that by reinstating the rule that he step aside, DeLay was "denying the Democrats their lone issue. Anything that could undermine our agenda needs to be nipped in the bud."

Hastert made the proposal to retain the current standards of conduct.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery said that a change in standards of conduct "would have been the right thing to do but it was becoming a distraction."

Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, said Republicans pulled back on the discipline rule because "the issue simply became too hot for them to handle."

Democrats on Monday toughened their own indictment rule. Previously, only committee chairmen were required to step aside if indicted. Now, the same rule applies to House Democratic leaders.

The House will debate all new rules proposals Tuesday, the first day of the 109th Congress.

House Democrats and Republicans had an informal ethics truce after an investigation of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's activities with tax-exempt organizations -- a probe that ended seven years ago with a financial penalty against Gingrich.

That truce ended last year when a freshman Democrat, Chris Bell of Texas, filed a complaint that led to a rebuke of DeLay. The House ethics committee cited the general rule several times in criticizing the majority leader.

However, the panel did not find that DeLay violated any other standard of conduct, even though it concluded that DeLay created the appearance that an energy company's political donors were given special access to him. DeLay also was admonished for his office's contact with federal aviation officials, seeking their intervention in a Texas political dispute.

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