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House GOP Scrutnizes Ethics Rules

Republican leaders are considering a change in House ethics rules that could make it harder to discipline lawmakers.

The proposal being circulated among House Republicans would end a general rule against any behavior that might bring "discredit" on the chamber, according to House Republican and Democratic leadership aides. House members would be held to a narrower standard of behavior in keeping with the law, the House's rules and its ethics guidelines.

Other proposed changes to the ethics committee's rules being circulated in a "Dear Colleague" letter from House Rules Chairman David Dreier (search), R-Calif., would let House members respond to any admonishment before a letter goes out from the committee, and would end an investigation if there is a tie vote.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., plans to bring the proposal before a meeting of all House Republicans next week "and see what they think," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.

The broader ethics rule in question was used this year to admonish Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, though the committee said he did not break House rules.

Democrats and government watchdog groups denounced the proposed change.

"It would lower the standard of official conduct, and if that's the case, it would be the first time that it has been done since 1968, and it would be done on a completely partisan basis," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, on Friday.

Pelosi, D-Calif., also plans to huddle with Democrats next week to discuss a strategy for defeating the proposal.

"Members of the House should be kept to the highest ethical standard, not the lowest," Crider said. "Now, the code is higher than the law. This would say you've only violated the code of ethics if you've violated the law."

The committee has a long history, dating to the first recorded disciplinary action in 1798, when a Vermont lawmaker spat on a Connecticut colleague during a vote. Despite an apology letter, the committee nearly expelled the Vermonter, but fell two votes shy.

In the DeLay case, the committee said he had created the appearance of linking political donations to a legislative favor and improperly gained intervention of the Federal Aviation Administration in a Texas political dispute. It also said DeLay had improperly offered support for the House candidacy of Michigan Republican Rep. Nick Smith's son in return for the lawmaker's vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Smith voted against it.

After helping craft that admonishment, the committee's chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (search), R-Colo., may be replaced with another chairman by Hastert. Feehery said that is being considered because Hastert believes rules limit Hefley's tenure on the commission, not because of his leadership on the DeLay case.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 (search), a watchdog group, said the House Republican leaders' proposal "would fundamentally undermine and damage the House ethics rules, and would constitute the biggest backtracking we have ever seen on ethics standards in the House."

"If House Republican leaders are allowed to prevail, they will have gutted the single most important ethics standard in the House and turned House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's multiple ethics transgressions into acceptable conduct for all House members," Wertheimer said.