WASHINGTON – The new Congress convened Tuesday with the House moved to re-elect Dennis Hastert (search) as speaker after majority Republicans retreated on efforts to weaken ethics rules. Lawmakers got down to the business of considering President Bush's ambitious agenda after the swearing-in of 41 new members.
The Senate also convened for the 109th Congress, a session where Republicans are expected to use their reinforced majorities to push the administration's aggressive efforts to change Social Security and confirm the president's nominations to federal judgeships.
Vice President Dick Cheney presided as the Senate swore in 34 members elected in November, including seven Republican and two Democratic freshmen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called for a moment of silence for Asian tsunami victims.
In the House, Republicans sidestepped what could have been a bruising opening-day fight with Democrats by deciding, at a closed-door meeting Monday night, to reverse course on several measures that could have made it harder to punish members for ethical transgressions.
GOP leaders stressed that they didn't want the ethics issue to sidetrack their greater legislative goals, which include lawsuit and immigration reforms as well as the president's advocacy of allowing people to put part of their Social Security (search) taxes into private investments.
"It would have been the right thing to do, but it was becoming a distraction," said John Feehery, spokesman for Hastert, R-Ill. Feehery was referring to a proposed relaxation in ethics rules -- including one that would have made it more difficult to rebuke members whose misconduct didn't reach the level of specific rule or law violations.
Republicans come into the new session after picking up four seats in the Senate, to reach 55. They will command 232 of the 435 House seats, an increase of three.
After swearing in the new members and taking care of other housekeeping measures, the House was taking up the GOP-proposed rules changes. Despite the modifications made by Republicans at a closed-door meeting Monday, these changes seemed certain to generate Democratic protests.
The proposals would make it harder to proceed with an ethics investigation by requiring a majority vote of the evenly divided ethics committee. The current system allows an investigation to begin automatically if there is no action within 45 days.
At least one prominent Republican, outgoing ethics committee chairman Joel Hefley (search), R-Col., voiced concerns about the rules changes because "ethics reform must be bipartisan and this package is not bipartisan."
Hefley has drawn fire from fellow Republicans for agreeing with several panel findings that criticized House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) for his political tactics.
Among other provisions of the package, lawmakers and their staff would be able to take a relative along on lobbyist-financed trips. Currently, they can be accompanied only by a spouse or child.
Another provision would expand the authority of the committee that oversees homeland security issues, a move that was strongly backed by the Sept. 11 Commission (search), which complained that too many committees in Congress have jurisdiction over security matters.
But the likelihood of a bitter fight over ethics was largely averted when DeLay, R-Texas, and Hastert made two startling announcements at the beginning of the GOP meeting.
First DeLay asked Republicans to overturn the party rule, enacted last November on his behalf, that allows party heads to retain their posts even if indicted. Three of DeLay's Texas associates have been indicted by a grand jury in Austin on fund-raising violation charges.
DeLay's spokesman, Jonathan Grella, said DeLay was confident that he would not be indicted, and decided to seek the elimination of the rule protecting him because he didn't want to give Democrats an issue.
"We want to make sure the substance comes first. Anything that could undermine our agenda needs to be nipped in the bud," said Grella.
Secondly, Hastert withdrew a proposal that would have made it tougher to rebuke a member of the House for misconduct. Here too the dispute revolved around DeLay.
The ethics panel, while saying the DeLay broke no rule or law, has criticized him in the past year for his tactics in trying to win the vote of a colleague, for giving the impression of a link between donations and support for legislation, and for his office's contact with federal aviation officials, seeking their intervention in a Texas political dispute.
The code of conduct that was retained by the Republicans requires lawmakers and employees to conduct themselves "at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House." Some Republicans believed the standard is too general and wanted any discipline to depend on a more specific finding of wrongdoing.
Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, said Republicans pulled back on the discipline rule because "the issue simply became too hot for them to handle."