WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly late Wednesday to reverse new Republican-written rules that led Democrats to shut down the ethics committee.
The Republicans, accused of writing the rules to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) from investigations, heeded Speaker Dennis Hastert's (search) call for a retreat in order to end the deadlock on the evenly divided panel. 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, Hastert 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.
Hastert told reporters earlier in the day that he would rather get the panel, formally known as the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee (search), operating under bad rules than stuck not operating at all.
In talking points prepared for the closed GOP meeting, Republican leaders said the GOP stood by the changes but believed it was more important "to have a functioning ethics committee that may be flawed" than a panel that couldn't function. Democrats have kept the committee deadlocked by refusing to provide any votes to start operations.
"I think we need to move forward in the ethics process. I think there are issues out there that needs to be discussed," Hastert told reporters. "I think there's a member on our side that needs to move forward so he can clear his name and right now, he can't."
Hastert's comments came after a closed-door meeting of the GOP rank and file, the latest in a string of private sessions in which Republicans discussed ways to stem political damage from continuing allegations of ethical conflicts on DeLay's part.
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 No. 2 Republican in the House told reporters on Wednesday he will vote for the rules change, even without knowing exactly what they are.
"I would imagine, as the Speaker told us in conference this morning, that it will be going back to the old rules of the 108th Congress," he said.
DeLay said he will support the recent rule change because "this House needs an ethics committee, I personally need an ethics committee. ... I have been trying to take certain matters before the ethics committee and I look forward to doing that."
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.
Instead, Democrats refused to allow a sixth vote needed to get the committee to operate.
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.
Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who supported the retreat, said the GOP move "doesn't mean Democrats will stop going after DeLay."
Hefley was removed by Hastert as chairman of the evenly divided ethics committee after the panel admonished DeLay. He has been one of the few Republicans who opposed the Republican changes from the beginning.
Republican lawmakers, who would not be identified by name because their meeting was closed, said some didn't want to stop the fight, believing the party could still win the political battle to uphold the changes.
But apparently little dissent came from participants in the GOP caucus and a House vote to revert to the old rules could find overwhelming support.
Despite the expected support, Republicans still have the politically sticky task of explaining their reversal after defending the rules changes for months.
Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., said the speaker told fellow Republicans it was important to resolve the ethics committee deadlock because it was becoming a distraction for the party at a time when it is attempting to accomplish its legislative goals.
He praised Hastert for being willing to "pivot" on the issue.
A GOP aide said that Republicans would continue to defend their changes as necessary to provide more fairness to members under investigation. Likewise, they would keep asserting the changes had nothing to do with DeLay.
But Democrats admonished House members to respect the traditional hiring standards and to avoid changing rules in individual cases.
"Central to a bipartisan upholding of a high ethical standing is the nonpartisan staffing of the Ethics Committee. ... Those are the rules of the House. They have been departed from in this Congress," Pelosi said.
In a letter to the speaker dated April 12 but kept private until Wednesday, Pelosi also called on Hastert to urge Rep. Doc Hastings (search), R-Wash., the panel's chairman, to abandon plans to name his chief as staff director for the committee.
"I cannot imagine a staffing arrangement more damaging to the nonpartisan character of the committee," she wrote in the letter.
Mollohan and Pelosi aides noted that Republicans had fired two holdover staff members unilaterally. They said they wanted any new staff to be hired by bipartisan agreement.
Hastert bristled at talk of Democrats dictating committee staffing. "If they get one thing, they'll want another," he told The Associated Press.
"We raised their staffing. They have the ability to hire more staff," he added, referring to a large increase in the committee's budget.
FOX News' Jim Mills, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.