DeLay avoids ethics questions as Dems criticize GOP leaders

Embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) refused to answer questions yesterday about his ethical conduct as congressional Democrats attacked the GOP leadership in both houses of Congress for “arrogance and abuse of power.”

DeLay told a standing-room crowd of reporters in his weekly press briefing that he will not speak publicly about “anything but the legislative agenda” before the House ethics committee convenes to hear his case.

The evenly divided committee has yet to organize itself this session. It is locked in a standoff over new rules that would require a majority vote of the 10-member panel to undertake an investigation, preventing DeLay from addressing questions about the funding for three trips he took abroad between 1997 and 2001.

Referring to the committee, DeLay said, “I hope they understand that if they are not organized it will be for political purposes. If they choose not to organize, it is obvious they don’t want me to appear.”

Several hours earlier, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) held a news conference to attack Republicans about the ethics standoff. They did not address DeLay by name until reporters asked them about ethical issues involving the majority leader.

“My point is not about Tom,” Pelosi told The Hill after the briefing. “We have been concerned about how Congress is conducted for years now. Mr. DeLay’s ethical problems have put it in the media. Now … [the press is] paying attention.”

Pelosi dismissed Republican charges that Democrats have not gone after DeLay about his trips abroad because they would open themselves up to similar attacks. DeLay and a number of other House Republicans contend that members of both parties could be found guilty of similar transgressions with regard to the funding for trips abroad.

“They should be so lucky,” Pelosi said, adding, “It’s certainly an interesting tactic.”
Prompted by reporters, Pelosi and Reid both took the opportunity to take a few shots at DeLay.

“Mr. DeLay’s ethical behavior is what is responsible for the problems he is having now,” Pelosi said in response to a question about the role of Democrats and the press in the current controversy.

Reid said, “The problems that Tom DeLay has are problems of his own making.”

House Republicans yesterday continued to frame the questions surrounding DeLay as an inside-the-Beltway issue and worked instead to shift the focus back to the legislative agenda.

Before DeLay met reporters, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) opened a Republican Conference meeting by talking about his trip to the hospital last week to have a kidney stone removed. He said a hospital attendant, recognizing him as a member of Congress, told him to help lower gas prices and boost the attendant’s income, according to GOP aides.

“We have a real agenda,” Hastert told the conference.

He also told members that Democrats were playing a dangerous game by waging an ethics war in the House, recounting a joke he recently told Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio). When you go splashing in to the cow patch, that mud is going to get up on you, Hastert said.

Hastert also told members to avoid doing anything that could be portrayed as ethically improper.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee, also addressed the conference. He told his own story about meeting with troops in Iraq during a recent congressional delegation and said soldiers wanted him to reduce this country’s reliance on foreign oil.

He then told the conference that he did not expect Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), ranking member on the ethics committee, to back down from his stand against the new rules, meaning the committee would not meet. Hastings also told the conference that Mollohan was “taking his orders from Hoyer and Pelosi.”
In an hour-long special order Tuesday, Democrats — led by Mollohan — criticized the House ethics rules but did not specifically refer to DeLay.

At the GOP conference meeting, former ethics committee Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who was removed by Hastert earlier this year, told conference members that he agreed the Democratic attacks were partisan. But he said that Republicans had opened themselves up to the criticism by changing the rules in the first place.

Hefley and Mollohan co-authored an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post that stated, “a number of changes have been made to the committee’s rules, and we are deeply concerned that they may spell the end of a credible, effective ethics process.”

They concluded their article by declaring, “These changes will, at a minimum, seriously undermine the ability of the ethics committee to consider and act on complaints.”

Hefley left the conference meeting arm in arm with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who over the weekend called DeLay “an embarrassment” and asked him to step down as majority leader. Neither member would address initial questions from reporters, but Hefley finally acknowledged that he had not had any interaction with DeLay during the meeting.

DeLay himself did not speak during the conference meeting, according to members and staff in attendance.

During his press briefing, DeLay said the rules changes were completely Hastert’s idea. “The Speaker saw the abuse of the ethics process during the last year or two,” DeLay said. “The Speaker made those changes to stop abuse in the ethics process.