WASHINGTON – House Republicans fought back an attempt Thursday by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search) to enact a resolution directing the House speaker to appoint a task force to come up with recommendations "to restore public confidence in the ethics process."
In an unexpected move, the Democratic leader used a "point of personal privilege" to introduce the resolution calling for a review of the House ethics committee, which has been in limbo since rule changes were enacted by the House in January. Pelosi wanted the bipartisan task force to offer recommendations to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search) by June 1.
In a 218-195 party-line vote, Republicans pushed back the resolution, which featured a preamble criticizing Republicans for taking actions that "have subjected the committee to public ridicule, produced contempt for the ethics process, created the public perception that their purpose was to protect a member of the House, and weakened the ability of the committee to adequately obtain information and properly conduct its investigative duties, all of which has brought discredit to the House."
Pelosi of California has been on the offensive against counterpart House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), who was admonished three times last year by the ethics panel. Two of the reprimands claimed created an appearance of giving donors special access on pending energy legislation and using the Federal Aviation Administration (search) to intervene in a Texas political dispute. The third admonishment came following an investigation that DeLay offered to endorse the House candidacy of a House member's son in exchange for the member's favorable vote on a Medicare prescription drug bill. An admonishment is the weakest penalty given by the committee.
On Wednesday, Pelosi criticized GOP members of the ethics panel, formally called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (search), for passing rules that require an ethics complaint to be dismissed if the evenly-divided committee is deadlocked. Ever since the rule change in February, Democrats have refused to meet for panel hearings.
Pelosi argued that Republicans changed the rules to protect DeLay, particularly since the Speaker Hastert replaced panel members with Republicans who opponents say are more likely to look sympathetically on DeLay.
"If the Republican majority chooses to protect him, then they have demonstrated that they are willing to lower the ethical standard of the House," she said.
On Wednesday, DeLay countered that the rules were changed fair and square.
"The speaker wanted and we passed — the full House passed — rules that protected members' rights of due process, rights to have their own lawyer, and required [that] in order to initiate an investigation ... you'd have to have a majority," he said.
DeLay's supporters insist that he is the subject of a Democratic smear campaign and that he has done nothing wrong.
"There is no evidence of any breaking of the House rules. No evidence of breaking of any of the laws of this land, or of the laws of Texas. There is no evidence," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas.
In the preamble of Pelosi's resolution, she takes to task House GOP leaders for replacing former panel chairman Joel Hefley (search) of Colorado. The resolution quotes Hefley saying that the change in GOP members on the panel gives the "bad perception" to the public that a "purge" has taken place. The resolution also points out that the new ethics chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (search) of Washington, fired several committee staff.
In October, Pelosi asked Hastert to investigate whether Hefley had been threatened by GOP lawmakers because of the admonishments to DeLay. Hefley said at the time that he had not been threatened.
Hefley and Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa were the two Republican members to support the resolution.
Despite the charges against DeLay, the No. 2 GOP leader continues to say he is not burdened by the Democratic allegations and is pushing the GOP agenda. On Wednesday, the House passed a permanent repeal to the estate tax, which is now scheduled to go into effect in 2010 after an eight-year reprieve. On Thursday, the chamber was expected to pass a bankruptcy bill that makes it harder for individuals to abandon debts when they declare bankruptcy.
President Bush also expressed his support for DeLay during an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Bush said he does not consider DeLay a liability for the party.
"[DeLay] wants the ethics committee to review his case, and he wants to talk to the ethics committee and I am looking forward to working with him," Bush said.
FOX News' Brian Wilson and Sharon Kehnemui Liss contributed to this report.