WASHINGTON - House Republicans unexpectedly retreated last night from a proposal to loosen ethics standards for all House members and restored a rule that would force Majority Leader Tom DeLay to step down from his leadership post if he is indicted.
The surprise moves came after Democrats and public-interest organizations loudly complained when House Republicans had entertained a relaxation of ethics rules that would make it harder for lawmakers to be disciplined.
"It had become a distraction from our important legislative agenda," said John Feehery, press secretary for Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, in explaining why House Republicans suddenly reversed course.
On the eve of the opening of the 109th Congress, DeLay, a Texas Republican, stood up in the meeting of House Republicans and asked that the House reinstate a rule that leaders would have to give up their jobs if indicted by a grand jury.
The GOP-controlled House overturned that rule last year.
An Austin grand jury has already charged three of DeLay's associates in an investigation of legislative redistricting.
Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for Hastert, said DeLay was "denying the Democrats their lone issue. Anything that could undermine our agenda has to be nipped in the bud."
Hastert proposed that House Republicans jettison a controversial rule change that would have required a specific finding of wrongdoing for ethical violations. This change would have wiped out an ethics standard requiring that members conduct themselves "at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House."
DeLay and other GOP members had complained this standard was too broad and allowed the panel to discipline lawmakers on the appearance of wrongdoing, not specific misdeeds. But Democrats and public-interest organizations said it was a powerful standard that members should adhere to.
As Congress prepared to open a new session today facing such major issues as Social Security and immigration reform, the relaxation of ethics rules had turned into a political issue that threatened to set an early partisan tone for the session.
"The issue simply became too hot for them to handle," said a spokesman for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
The fact that a number of Republicans had opposed the changes also played a role in the decision, Feehery said. Leaders got together and decided to stop the controversy.
Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who is being forced out as chairman of the ethics committee, spoke earlier yesterday against weakening the rules.
"This is not the way to effect meaningful reform," Hefley said in a statement. "Ethics reform must be bipartisan, and this package is not bipartisan."
Earlier, as controversy raged over the proposed changes, President Bush complained at a White House reception for new members of Congress that Washington "is sometimes too partisan and political. My hope is that we can show the nation that we can come together and achieve big things for the good of the country."
In that vein, the president said aid for tsunami victims should be the first order of business. Bush also hopes to push through his initiatives on Social Security, tax reform, energy, tort reform and immigration, and he is likely to find himself replacing at least one Supreme Court justice and possibly more.
Though the Republicans backed off on the ethics rules, Brookings Institution congressional expert Thomas Mann said he sees a potentially divisive congressional session ahead if the GOP does not reach out to Democrats and compromise on such substantive policy questions as Social Security and tax reform.
"The two parties are positioned for war, and war is what we will get," he said.
Some House Republicans, led by Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and others, opposed the effort to soften the ethics rules and hoped at least to water down the effort. Shays claimed 23 of the 232 GOP members opposed the changes, meaning the GOP by itself would not have had a majority of the 435-member House in favor of weakening the rules.
Before backing off on the changes, DeLay and other GOP members complained that the standard requiring members to conduct themselves in a way not to reflect badly on the House was too broad and allowed the panel to discipline lawmakers on the appearance of wrongdoing.
In fact, last year the ethics panel used this general provision to admonish DeLay for using the Federal Aviation Administration to track down Democrats in the Texas redistricting battle and for appearing to give contributors special access on pending energy legislation.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.