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Inside Politics

GOP reverses course over ethics rules

House Republicans opt to retain tougher standards

From Ted Barrett

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been admonished three times by the House ethics committee.
Tom DeLay

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Majority Leader Tom DeLay asked House Republicans Monday to reverse a December rule change that allows indicted leaders to continue to hold leadership posts in the chamber.

The rank-and-file members agreed to do so without dissent, two House Republican leadership aides who attended the meeting told CNN.

The so-called DeLay Rule had been heavily criticized. At Monday night's meeting, lawmakers praised DeLay for seeking the reversal.

Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican, had opposed the rule change. It would have allowed DeLay to remain in power if he were to be indicted by a grand jury in Travis County, Texas, that is conducting a campaign finance probe that involves DeLay.

"It takes a big man to do what he did, and a smart politician," said Wamp, who feared the DeLay Rule would have created a chasm in his party. "This allows us to stick together."

But Republicans did vote to change one key rule to require a majority on the ethics panel -- which is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans -- to vote in favor of conducting a formal investigation into allegations of wrongdoing against a member.

Currently, an investigation is triggered if the committee remains evenly split for 45 days on whether to take that step. The new rule is designed to provide a "presumption of innocence" for the accused, similar to what exists in the judicial system, according to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who once led the committee.

'Took the bullets right out of Nancy Pelosi's gun'

Monday night's meeting was called to review proposed changes to internal House rules, which will be voted on Tuesday by the full House.

Also at the meeting, Speaker Dennis Hastert announced the withdrawal of another proposed change to House ethics rules. This one would have removed language stating that a member "shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House."

Republican opponents considered the existing language too vague and open to political abuse. But after other Republicans complained it would be wrong to drop a standard that parallels the code of conduct for military personnel, the proposed change was dropped.

"I don't want to see us retreat at all on standards," said Wamp, a member of the GOP class of 1994, which rode to power with Rep. Newt Gingrich on promises of ethical reform.

DeLay did not apologize at the meeting for the controversy the rule change created. And comments from Republicans indicated Monday night's move was motivated primarily by politics.

A spokesman for DeLay said Democrats will now lose the one talking point that Republicans believed might have been effective against them.

Wamp said the move "took the bullets right out of [Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi's gun."

DeLay has been admonished three times by the House ethics committee, and he faces possible indictment in Texas in connection with a campaign finance probe.

The ethics panel said DeLay's attendance at a June 2002 golf fund-raiser for his leadership political action committee created an "improper appearance." The event was attended by energy company officials and held as House and Senate conferees were about to hash out energy legislation.

The committee also found that DeLay's office improperly contacted the Federal Aviation Administration in May 2003 to track a plane carrying Texas Democratic legislators, who had fled the state in an attempt to thwart a Republican plan to redraw the state's congressional district map.

The committee said the contacts amounted to an improper use of governmental resources for a political undertaking.

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