House Republicans change ethics rule to protect majority leader

WASHINGTON - Emboldened by their election successes, House Republicans on Wednesday changed their rules to allow Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas, to keep his post even if a grand jury indicts him, and Senate GOP leaders continued to weigh changing long-standing rules governing filibusters to prevent Democrats from blocking President Bush's most conservative judicial nominees.

Republicans were less brazen a month ago, when they held a tiny Senate majority and their House members were more sensitive to criticisms of ethical lapses on Capitol Hill. But basking in the Nov. 2 election that gave Bush a second term and expanded the party's House and Senate majorities, Republican leaders are showing greater willingness to brush past Democratic objections, parliamentary traditions and watchdog groups' denunciations to advance their agenda.

House Republicans, in an unrecorded voice vote behind closed doors, changed a 1993 party rule that required leaders who are indicted to step aside. Under the revised rule, an indicted leader can keep his or her post while the Republican Steering Committee - controlled by party leaders - decides whether to recommend any action by the full caucus.

Republicans made clear they would not act if they believe their leaders are targeted by grand juries or prosecutors motivated by politics, which is the charge DeLay and his allies repeatedly have leveled at a grand jury based in Austin. The grand jury has indicted three of DeLay's political associates in connection to fund-raising activities for a political action committee closely linked to DeLay.

Democrats and ethics watchdog groups denounced the House GOP action. "Today, Republicans sold their collective soul to maintain their grip on power," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: "Republicans have reached a new low. It is absolutely mind-boggling that as their first order of business following the elections, House Republicans have lowered the ethical standards for their leaders."

DeLay told reporters Wednesday he doesn't expect to be indicted but supported the rule change. Without it, Democrats could "have a political hack decide who our leadership is" by engineering a baseless indictment, he said. Democrats "announced years ago that they were going to engage in the politics of personal destruction, and had me as a target."

Unlike a proposal filed Tuesday, the rule change applies equally to state and federal indictments.

DeLay said the charges being investigated in Austin by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, an elected Democrat, "are frivolous" and "have no substance." Earle, who says partisanship plays no role in his investigation, notes that he has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans during his long career.

Republicans said neither DeLay nor Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., addressed the caucus meeting, which lasted several hours. Hastert later called the rule change "a good decision" that resulted in a "fair and equitable" standard.

When House Republicans adopted the 1993 rule requiring indicted leaders to step aside, they were highlighting ethical problems dogging prominent Democrats. Among them were Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., who eventually pleaded guilty to mail fraud.

Meanwhile in the Senate, where the GOP will hold 55 of the 100 seats in January, Republican leaders have sharpened their talk of changing rules governing the filibuster, a tactic that both parties have used over the years to block proposals that cannot muster 60 votes to shut off debate. Republicans are angry that Democrats have used the filibuster to block 10 of Bush's most conservative judicial nominees.

Changes to Senate rules usually require up to 67 votes if they are especially controversial. But there is one approach - called the "nuclear option" because of its explosive potential - that would require only 51 votes. Republicans could employ it at almost any time after the new Congress convenes in January.

Under this rarely used procedure, the Senate's presiding officer, presumably Vice President Cheney, would find that a super-majority to end filibusters is unconstitutional for judicial nominees. Democrats would undoubtedly challenge this ruling. But it takes only a simple majority - or 51 votes from the Senate GOP's new 55-vote majority - to sustain a ruling of the chair.

Some key Democrats have warned that such an approach would enrage even moderate Democrats who have qualms about judicial filibusters and destroy whatever comity remains in the chamber. "To implement the nuclear option would make the last Congress look like a bipartisan tea party," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said. Some Republicans also have qualms about the proposal, and it is unclear whether it would get a simple majority.

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Starting with a speech last week to the Federalist Society and continuing through the Sunday talk shows, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Senate Republicans would no longer tolerate filibusters on judicial nominations. He hinted broadly that the so-called nuclear option is under consideration as a last resort. "One way or the other, the filibuster of judicial nominees must end," he said.

But Frist has also talked about trying to reach some kind of accord with Democrats on handling nominations, and some believe his threats, capitalizing on the Democrats' weakened clout, are aimed at achieving this result. At a news conference Wednesday, he reiterated his opposition to judicial filibusters but declined to say if he wanted to provoke a constitutional fight over the issue.

"We're headed for a confrontation that would probably, truthfully, be better avoided," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a Judiciary Committee member, said.


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