WASHINGTON – The House Republican leadership has achieved its goal of separating Rep. Bob Ney, the committee chairman implicated in a burgeoning scandal, from GOP efforts to change how Congress interacts with lobbyists and their clients.
With Ney's decision — under pressure — to temporarily step down from chairing the powerful House Administration Committee, the six-term Ohio Republican won't have any control over his party's efforts to stem the damage caused by disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
As administration committee chairman, Ney would have overseen those reforms. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., wanted to make sure that didn't happen and asked Ney last week to step aside as chairman of the panel.
In pleading guilty to three felonies here this month, Abramoff put Ney at the center of the investigation. Abramoff swore that he and associates plied Ney with campaign donations, lavish free travel, entertainment and meals in exchange for official acts. Ney has denied any wrongdoing.
Some of Ney's alleged ties to Abramoff involved his chairmanship of the committee, such as the lucrative contract he gave to an Abramoff client in 2003 to improve wireless telephone reception in House buildings.
Ney said Sunday the allegations against him had become a distraction from the Republican reform effort.
"There's a lot of people that are having some heartburn with all the publicity and if they have heartburn I can be the Rolaids," Ney said in an interview with The Associated Press Radio Network from his home in Heath, Ohio.
"I'll just step aside and someone can run the committee and then I feel once I'm cleared, I'll be able to come back," he said.
Spokesmen for Hastert and House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., did not return calls Sunday night seeking comment on Ney's decision.
Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., is the next highest-ranking Republican on the administration committee. The moderate Republican from the Grand Rapids area may be best known for spearheading legislation to clean up sediment in the Great Lakes. He's been in the House since 1993.
The administration committee doles out House contracts, and oversees federal elections, the budgets of other committees and even members parking spaces. Ney had been known as the "Mayor of Capitol Hill" for the control he had.
Ney tried to get ahead of the allegations last summer by directing the House clerk to set up an electronic system for House members to disclose privately paid travel. The system still isn't in place and trips are still filed on paper, in binders only available in the basement of a House office building.
"I pushed about nine months ago to have lobby reform, but nobody really would listen to me," Ney said Sunday. "I wanted to do it then because that way it's made much more clear so members don't get into positions like I have."
But Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee, has told the AP better disclosure won't stop members from breaking the rules and Ney's plan was an effort to blame the system for unethical behavior.
Democrats are offering their own plan this week to stamp out improper travel and unethical relationships with lobbyists.
Ney's decision comes as three House Republicans are waging a spirited campaign to replace Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas as majority leader. DeLay was forced by party rules to step aside after he was indicted by a state grand jury in Texas for alleged violation of campaign finance laws.
DeLay also is a longtime friend of Abramoff and some of DeLay's former aides have been charged in the Abramoff investigation.
A GOP leadership aide said Friday that Hastert was pressuring Ney to step aside because he believes it would be inappropriate for him to head the committee with jurisdiction over the Republican reform agenda.
A statement by Ney on Sunday said he had notified Hastert earlier in the day of his decision.
"I want to assure my colleagues and my constituents that I have done absolutely nothing wrong, and I am convinced that I will be vindicated completely at the end of this difficult process," Ney said.
Ney will maintain his chairmanship of a housing subcommittee, said his spokesman, Brian Walsh.
The GOP leadership aide who spoke Friday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of private talks between Ney and Hastert, said the speaker himself could not fire Ney. If Ney had not agreed to step aside, it would have been at least three weeks until the GOP caucus could consider removing him.