WASHINGTON – It's a rare day in Washington when ethics wins a round.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search) persuaded fellow Republicans fearful of political fallout to retreat from a fight over ethics rules Democrats insist were written to shield Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search).
The 406-20 vote Wednesday night to return to the old House ethics committee rules opened the way for a probe of the Texas Republican by that panel.
With DeLay fast becoming the poster child for bad behavior, the move was seen as an effort by Hastert to limit political damage.
"We need to move forward. We need to get this behind us," Hastert, R-Ill., said Wednesday as he sought ways to unsnarl the tangle of ethical issues surrounding DeLay's travel, relationship with lobbyists and fund-raising activities.
"I'm willing to step back," Hastert said as he worked to end a deadlock that crippled the ethics panel.
No lawmaker wanted to have to defend a rule protecting DeLay in next year's midterm congressional elections.
Letting the ethics committee open a full investigation into DeLay's conduct will give some political breathing room to congressional Republicans, enabling them to tell constituents the matter is "under investigation."
The controversy is generating a lot of nervousness in the halls of Congress. For sure, there are other members who have taken free golf trips or stayed at a resort at a lobbyist's expense.
Hastert's move provided some political cover, too, for President Bush (search), who earlier in the week made a public show of support for DeLay. The two Texans have had a sometimes rocky relationship over the years.
At a Social Security event in Galveston, Texas, Bush praised DeLay's leadership abilities and gave him a lift to Washington on Air Force One. But Bush stopped short of defending DeLay on any specific ethics allegation.
For Bush, the gesture was a calculated gamble. He had not offered similar backing to Sen. Trent Lott (news, bio, voting record), R-Miss., whose praise for Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential run cost him his post as Senate majority leader in December 2002.
"It's because DeLay has been so important in getting Bush's agenda through the House," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. Still, Ross said DeLay's behavior has been "an embarrassment" to Republicans and to the White House, especially since Bush himself "has been very successful personally in evading scandal."
Delay's ethics problems are among several recent complications for Bush and his allies in Congress as he tries to move his agenda.
The president's proposal for revising Social Security to establish private accounts is finding little support, either in Congress or among the general public. Meanwhile, the Senate is heading for a knockdown brawl over leadership efforts to block a Democratic filibuster of Bush's judicial nominees.
Bush supporters hope the ethical storms swirling around DeLay will eventually subside.
"DeLay has been very important to the administration in pushing its agenda in Congress. Everybody agrees DeLay is a very effective leader, whether they like him or not," said Charlie Black, a GOP consultant with close ties to the White House. "My guess is, by this time next year, it will be business as usual for Tom DeLay as leader, and nobody will be talking about it."
Before Republicans forced changes in ethics committee rules in January, investigations could begin if the panel — made up of five Republicans and five Democrats — was evenly divided. The Republican changes provided for an automatic dismissal in case of a tie. Democrats have boycotted the panel since, effectively shutting it down.
Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political science professor who has closely followed the careers of both Bush and DeLay, said "it's too soon to say for sure whether DeLay is headed for the deep six." But Buchanan said that DeLay is clearly being undermined by "a story a day about some new revelation or some new investigation."
"It kind of depends on how long the thousand cuts continue," Buchanan said.