Democratic whips get near-unanimous support for overturning new rules

Democratic leaders are taking the unusual step of whipping up co-sponsors on Rep. Alan Mollohan’s (D-W.Va.) bill to revamp House ethics procedures, aiming to get unanimous backing before they focus their efforts on pressuring centrist Republicans.

As of yesterday morning, 196 Democrats had signed on to a bill that was introduced March 1. In the evening, that number broke 200, allowing House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to focus his efforts on the three Democratic lawmakers who have yet to sign on to the bill — Doris Matsui (Calif.), Cynthia McKinney (Ga.) and David Obey (Wis.).

Democrats believe that their near unanimous support will allow them to pressure Republican leaders to schedule a vote as well as peel off any reform-minded Republicans, Democratic leadership aides said.

“I’ve asked for a list,” Hoyer told The Hill, “We may not have gotten to all of them yet, but we’ll be reaching out.”

Mollohan, the ranking member on the ethics committee, engineered a breakdown of the panel’s first formal meeting last week, as the evenly divided committee could not reach a simple majority on procedural matters. He has signaled that he will continue to obstruct the committee’s work and prevent it from organizing until he receives a vote on his bill.

Mollohan’s bill would reinstate several procedures of the 108th Congress. The most contested proposal would revert to an old rule requiring the committee, officially the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct, to investigate a complaint unless a majority on the committee voted to dismiss it after 45 days.

Under the new GOP-drafted rules, passed on a party-line vote as part of this year’s overall rules package, an ethics complaint would be dismissed after 45 days if the committee were deadlocked on the need to investigate further.

“We hope the Republicans will agree to Mr. Mollohan’s bill and/or his offer in the committee itself to go back to the rules which provided for substantive treatment of allegations that were made,” said Hoyer.

Mollohan explained that he was focusing his efforts on “educating” lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about his proposal and that he had he received positive responses from “several Republicans.” But he declined to name those GOP lawmakers.

Republicans said it was unlikely a vote would be scheduled this week on Mollohan’s proposal, said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Mollohan said that he had discussed his proposed rules changes with the committee chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), but that he did not know where Hastings stood. “You’ll have to ask him,” Mollohan said, “If this legislation makes it to the floor, we would have strong support on both sides of the aisle.”

“We certainly understand our Democratic members’ concerns about the rules, but the ethics committee has absolutely no discretion in the matter,” said Ed Cassidy, a top aide to Hastings.

“The parliamentarian has made it clear that it’s our job to carry out the express will of the House,” Cassidy continued.

So far, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) is the only Republican to have contacted Mollohan’s office to co-sponsor the bill. But Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the outgoing committee chairman, indicated to some Democrats that he would add his name.

Hefley was the only Republican to vote with the Democrats yesterday on a plan offered by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to create a bipartisan task force to make ethics recommendations by May 2. Pelosi offered a privileged resolution that criticized “decisions affecting the ethics process have been made on a partisan basis without consulting the Democratic members of the committee or of the House.”

It was unclear why those three Democrats were refusing to co-sponsor Mollohan’s bill.

“I haven’t even looked at it. I have no idea what it does,” Obey said.

A spokesman for McKinney said, “We just haven’t gotten around to it.”

Democrats expected to get the support of Matsui, who was only recently sworn in.