WASHINGTON – Now that the House has given its blessing to rules governing its members' ethics, the first order of business is expected to be charges against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
The House voted overwhelmingly late Wednesday to reverse new Republican-written rules that led Democrats to shut down panel, formally known as the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee (search). The vote was 406-20.
In debate, Democrats continued to attack DeLay's conduct. Republicans countered that they didn't make a mistake but accepted political reality: In a committee with five members of each party, Democrats would not supply any votes to let the committee operate without a reversal of the rules.
"We were absolutely right," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. countered, "When they thought no one was looking, they passed a package that effectively neutered the committee ... to protect one man from investigation."
All votes against the resolution were cast by Republicans and the debate was bitterly partisan.
Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the ethics committee, told the five Democratic panel members that they should "take 'yes' for an answer" when it came to the Republicans' giving up on ethics rules passed in January that Democrats say made it harder to investigate House members under an ethics cloud.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search) said he stood ready to "step back" on the rules in order to get the panel moving. Democrats had essentially shut down operation by refusing to convene as long as the new rules were in place.
In a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search), D-Calif., Hastert urged ethics committee members to get the panel up and running again, signaling his willingness to repeal the rules. He also defended those rules despite that they would be discarded.
"These common-sense reforms, which the minority made no attempt to change or eliminate in the motion to recommit during the adoption of the rules, have sadly been twisted and distorted and used as political fodder," Hastert wrote.
The speaker also blamed Democrats for the impasse, saying that the time to object should have been in January, and the refusal to negotiate on earlier compromises suggests that "the fairness or the merits of the rules changes seem not to even be the issue."
"I believe that the ethics process should be above partisan politics. Since sincere and repeated offers to address the concerns raised by you and Mr. Mollohan have been rebuffed, I propose that the House return to the ethics rules under which we operated in the last Congress, leaving the unfairness inherent in the old system in place," Hastert wrote.
"I do so with the hope that once the committee gets back to its important work that it will find time to revisit these changes and, if it sees fit, make a recommendation to the whole House for further action," he wrote.
DeLay, who has been under an ethical cloud relating to his dealings with lobbyists and fund-raisers, insists he has done nothing wrong and has offered to speak to the panel several times.
The ethics committee, with five Republicans and five Democrats, is one of the few places the minority party can assert power in the House.
The ethics rules in effect before the January changes allowed investigations to begin if the committee was evenly divided. The Republican changes provided for an automatic dismissal in case of a tie.
The new rule upset Democrats because it meant that a majority committee vote was needed to launch an investigation or to prevent automatic dismissal of a case — meaning that at least one Republican would have to vote to investigate DeLay, long respected and feared as a party-line enforcer.
Last year, the committee admonished DeLay — the lowest form of punishment — on three separate matters. Since then, new questions have been raised about whether lobbyist Jack Abramoff (search) — now under federal investigation — paid for some of DeLay's foreign trips in violation of House rules. DeLay has maintained those trips were properly paid for by non-profit organizations.
DeLay said that the committee needs to make clear to members what trips are sanctioned and which are against the rules. And he said he wants the panel to answer those questions not only for himself but for all members.
"I will be asking them to look at these issues not only as [they] pertain to me but to the entire House, because obviously there are questions that need to be answered by the ethics committee as to what trips can be taken, how can they be taken. ... The responsibility of the ethics committee is to give clear guidelines to the members when it comes to these trips and how they are taken," he said.
FOX News' Jim Mills, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.