Republicans seek complaint against minority leader

A group of House Republican lawmakers, stewing over a Democratic ethics complaint filed against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), is pressing for the GOP to file a reciprocal complaint against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for violating campaign-finance law.

That would shatter what’s left of the ethics truce party leaders forged in the late ’90s and could lead Republicans and Democrats to remilitarize the ethics battlefield with tit-for-tat complaints.
A group of House Republican lawmakers, stewing over a Democratic ethics complaint filed against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), is pressing for the GOP to file a reciprocal complaint against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for violating campaign-finance law.

That would shatter what’s left of the ethics truce party leaders forged in the late ’90s and could lead Republicans and Democrats to remilitarize the ethics battlefield with tit-for-tat complaints.
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Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

Some Republican lawmakers are exhorting their colleagues to back away from such a war.

House Republican leaders, less choleric than the rank-and-file members who want to target Pelosi, are discussing reforming the procedures of the Standards of Official Conduct Committee, as the ethics panel is formally known, to tighten confidentiality of ethics proceedings and give accused lawmakers more opportunity to defend themselves.

The reforms could also render ethics complaints less damaging by making it easier for the committee to dismiss them and reducing the influence of outside groups that want to have lawmakers sanctioned. Republicans suspect that the Democrats colluded with outside groups by leaking the ethics schedule to them so that they could lobby committee members and maximize damage to DeLay.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert may decide to replace Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) as chairman of the committee. His handling of the complaint against DeLay infuriated many House Republicans. Hefley says he was threatened by colleagues.

He said that he has “talked informally with the Speaker but nothing formal” about staying on and has made clear that he would continue to serve if asked. He said he would speak with Hastert again this month.

Republicans expect that their efforts to reform the ethics process will elicit sharp attacks from Democrats, who may accuse Republicans of changing the rules for political reasons or for self-protection.

Democrats blasted Republicans last month for altering conference rules that required Republican leaders to step down from their posts if indicted. Democrats would likely criticize Hefley’s removal. Pelosi has called for an investigation of alleged Republican threats against Hefley. His ouster would likely draw charges of revenge.

An ethics complaint against Pelosi would prompt even greater outrage and probably retaliation. Some Republicans are itching for conflict.

“We have people in our conference who want to go after Nancy Pelosi, who has violated federal election law and has been fined,” said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who was a critic of the ethics committee and a strong defender of DeLay during the ethics controversy that embroiled him before the election.

“To the extent that she’s violated federal law, she’s brought into question the integrity of the House,” Feeney said. “We have members who would love to see us retaliate by going after Nancy Pelosi.” Feeney declined to name members who want to target Pelosi.

He said that he opposes such a move because it would lead to “tit-for-tat political attacks” and a “frenzy of partisan attacks.” Feeney said he would prefer reforms to make it more difficult for lawmakers to file mischievous, politically motivated complaints.

The Federal Election Commission fined Pelosi’s political operation $21,000 last year for collecting and distributing funds in excess of campaign-finance limits through two leadership political action committees: PAC to the Future and Team Majority.

Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a right-leaning group that filed the FEC complaint, said an ethics complaint would be “highly proper under the rules.” He said that his group would have pursued an ethics complaint against Pelosi if House rules still permitted it.

“If we had standing we would have done it yesterday,” Boehm said. “You have to get a member of Congress to have standing.”

Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Pelosi, said the Republican “recitation of the facts” is inaccurate. Pelosi’s finance staff discussed the appropriateness of setting up a second leadership PAC with FEC staff, who initially endorsed it informally.

“The [full] commission [later] said it was not OK,” Crider said. “As soon as they contacted the finance staff, we worked with the FEC and did exactly what they said.”

Crider noted that the $21,000 fine was dwarfed by comparison with the nearly $200,000 that Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) was fined in 2003.

“Do they also plan on filing charges on the 12 or more [Republican] members who were fined in the last cycle?” Crider asked.

Reforming the process may satisfy angry Republicans. The committee’s public admonishment of DeLay enabled his enemies to bash him relentlessly, even though DeLay was found not to have violated House rules.

Republicans are also angry that the committee pursued a complaint filed by a departing lawmaker, freshman Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), who lost his seat because of a redistricting plan that DeLay spearheaded. Many Republicans said Bell was motivated by revenge.

Aside from improving confidentiality, the GOP wants accused lawmakers to have the right to a public hearing on the merits of the complaint once it is certified by the committee. DeLay asked the ethics committee several times for a chance to rebut Bell’s charges but was denied.

DeLay’s lawyer, former Rep. Ed Bethune (R-Ark.), said DeLay was given only two hours to read and respond to the committee’s findings before it was released. That was insufficient time, Bethune said, to combat the impression that DeLay broke House rules.

Bethune, who has sent a letter to Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) suggesting reforms, wants the ethics committee to hold evidentiary hearings before certifying complaints. He said Bell’s complaint would not have been certified by such a system.

Hefley’s future as ethics chairman will be determined by Hastert because term-limit rules for the committee are unclear. That stems from Hefley’s having joined the committee in the middle of the 105th Congress. One rule limiting rank-and-file members’ terms to three congresses within a 10-year period states that service less than a full “session” should not be counted against the limit. However, a rule limiting the service of chairmen and ranking minority members to four congresses within a 10-year span does not address incomplete sessions.

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