First item as Congress convenes: Change the rules

House considers new ethics policies. Senate eyes rules affecting judicial nominees.

As the 109th Congress opens this week, Republicans are considering rule changes that will rein in the ethics process in the House and curb the minority's capacity to derail judicial nominations in the Senate.

If passed, these changes would signal how a GOP majority that gained seats in the 2004 vote plans to use its new clout to protect its leaders and move the president's agenda.

But they also risk ratcheting partisan animosities in both houses even higher and opening the Republican leadership to charges of overreaching and abuse of power - the themes that GOP insurgents used to topple 40 years of Democratic control of the House a decade ago.

Less than a third of the current Republican Conference were in the House when Democrats controlled the chamber with an iron fist. That compares with nearly half of current Democrats. "Most Republicans weren't there when Democrats overreached and became politically tone deaf," says Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

Moreover, with an incumbent reelection rate of 98 to 99 percent, "the great majority of Republicans aren't going to have a competitive race again," she says. "Theoretically, it's a dangerous combination."

In a meeting Monday night, the House Republican caucus is to vote on new rules that raise the threshold for ethics cases. According to a draft circulated to GOP members, these could include:

• Exempting lawmakers from the standard that a member should "conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House," so long as the lawmaker has otherwise followed "applicable laws, regulations, and rules."

• Ending an investigation if there is a tie vote. (The House ethics committee is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.)

• Allowing a member to respond to an admonishment before it is made public.

The most obvious object of such changes is House majority leader Tom DeLay, who was admonished by the House ethics panel three times last year and faces a possible criminal indictment by a grand jury in Texas.

Last month, the Republican caucus reversed its own 2003 rule that would require leaders to resign, if criminally indicted. (House Democrats have no comparable rule, although they promise to pass one.) That meeting, which went on for hours, ended in a decision not to record the vote - a sign of how controversial the majority leader is becoming within his own party.

In October, the ethics panel admonished Mr. DeLay for the appearance of favorable treatment to a lobbyist, misuse of a federal agency in a Texas political dispute, and an "improper" offer to a colleague in exchange for a vote. Another inquiry, still pending, involves possible campaign-finance violations in Texas. Three close aides of DeLay were indicted in Texas on Sept. 21 for misuse of corporate funds.

House leaders who are proposing the rule changes insist they are needed to protect the process. "The changes are mostly technical in nature. The goal is to take partisanship and politics out of the ethics process," says John Feehery, a spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert.

But Democrats and other critics say the move aims to protect power and lower the standard of ethics in the House. Today, eight government watchdog groups are calling on the House to reject any change that discourages members of Congress from filing valid ethics complaints. "Outside groups should be able to file valid complaints with the ethics committee," says the Congressional Ethics Coalition, which also cautions GOP leaders to "not retaliate" against members of the ethics committee when it finds a breach of ethics rules.

Even some Republicans who are convinced that the attacks on DeLay are politically motivated worry that the rule changes at this time send the wrong message to voters. "It could hurt us in 2006," says a senior GOP House aide.

When insurgent Republicans met at the opening of the 104th Congress, they rewrote the House rules to enhance accountability and minority rights, as they had promised in the 1994 campaign. These changes included: term limits on the Speaker and chairmen of committees, a broad ban on gifts from lobbyists, and a ban on proxy voting.

In their 10 years in the majority, Republicans have rolled back many of those rule changes, including the gift ban - in 1999 and again in 2003, to allow lobbyists to pay for trips and cater meals for House members. In 2003, Republicans voted to end the term-limit cap on Speaker.

On the Senate side, proposed rule changes are even more incendiary. Dubbed "the nuclear option," one change floated by Republican leaders involves lowering the threshold for ending debate on judicial nominations from 60 votes to a simple majority. Democrats say that they would respond to such a move by grinding the Senate to a halt with procedural objections.

Unlike the House, the Senate does not rewrite rules at the beginning of each Congress. Republicans do not plan on bringing up this rule change, "until after Democrats respond to the first Bush nomination," says Amy Call, a spokeswoman for majority leader Bill Frist.

A more pressing negotiation is over the budgets and staff ratios for Senate committees in the 109th Congress. When the Senate was divided 50-50, Senate leaders negotiated a 50-50 split in committee resources as well. Democrats are fighting to retain that split as closely as possible in the new Congress.

"Investigation committees have a lot at stake, because when the president's party also controls the Congress, you don't see much aggressive investigation unless it comes from the loyal opposition," says Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the new assistant minority leader.

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