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House GOP prepared to launch ethics probe of DeLay

Democrats urged to drop opposition to rules changes

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans said yesterday they are prepared to launch an ethics investigation of their second-in-command, majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who has been dogged by allegations that he accepted free trips from lobbyists, among other possible violations of House rules.

But the Republicans coupled the offer with a demand that Democrats drop their opposition to new rules enacted by the GOP in January. Democrats, who have prevented the House Ethics Committee from meeting this year in protest of the new rules, quickly rejected the plan.

''These are two totally separate issues," said the committee's ranking Democrat, Representative Allan Mollohan of West Virginia, referring to the DeLay probe and the rewriting of ethics rules.

The House Democratic whip, Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, went further, saying in a statement that the GOP move was a ''charade" and ''a calculated attempt to divert attention from the fact that the Republican majority has neutered the Ethics Committee in the House by imposing partisan rules that hamstring any meaningful inquiry."

Earlier in the day, at least four of the five Republicans on the House Ethics Committee said they had agreed to vote as early as today to begin proceedings against DeLay. The committee's chairman, Representative Doc Hastings, Republican of Washington, called the move ''an unusual and extraordinary step."

Hastings acknowledged that the GOP offer was intended to break the stalemate with committee Democrats, some of whom had maintained that the new rules were intended to shield the majority leader. ''This should remove any doubt about the true intent of these rules changes," Hastings said. ''They were designed to treat all members more fairly, not to protect any individual member from any action of the committee."

But Democrats maintained that their opposition to the rules goes beyond any concerns about DeLay. They have been particularly opposed to a rule that any complaint against a House member will be thrown out after 45 days if the panel, composed of five Democrats and five Republicans, were to be deadlocked on how to proceed. Under previous rules, such a deadlock would trigger further investigation.

The announcement by Hastings appeared to signal a new willingness among Republicans to address accusations that DeLay, one of the party's most powerful leaders, may have abused his position. DeLay is accused of taking several overseas trips at the expense of interest groups with business before the Congress. DeLay has said he thought the trips were covered by nonprofit groups and did not violate any House rules.

The Associated Press also reported yesterday that DeLay treated his donors to a concert from an arena skybox leased by a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who is under criminal investigation. House rules require that members reimburse interest groups for any significant benefits they receive, including entertainment for members or their friends.

DeLay said in a statement after Hastings's announcement that he welcomes a chance to clear his name, but he stopped short of endorsing an investigation: ''I've sent letters to the committee asking to appear before the chairman and ranking member to discuss matters. And for more than a month, I've said I hope for a fair process that will afford me the opportunity to get the facts out and set the record straight. I welcome the opportunity to address this with the committee."

DeLay has consistently denied any wrongdoing. DeLay's campaign office recently mailed a six-page letter to his constituents in the Houston area defending his record and accusing a ''left-wing syndicate" of smearing him and trying to bring him down. The flier stated that ''Tom DeLay has never been found in violation of any law by anyone."

Democrats have long criticized the conservative Republican, blaming him for the rancorous atmosphere of the Republican-controlled House. They have complained about what they describe as DeLay's heavy-handed style of leadership -- one of his nicknames is ''the hammer" -- and accused him of shutting them out of key deliberations.

The House Ethics Committee has been the focus of fierce controversy since it admonished DeLay last fall for other questionable activities, including pressuring a fellow lawmaker on a Medicare vote. The chairman at the time, Representative Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican considered an independent GOP voice, was later removed from his post by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois. The move was derided by Democrats who charged that Hefley was being punished for rebuking DeLay.

Since then, DeLay has been the subject of news reports raising ethical complaints about him, including a $60,000 trip to Russia funded by a business in the Bahamas, a $106,000 trip to South Korea financed by a lobbying group set up by South Korean businessmen, and a $70,000 trip to London and Scotland partly financed by an American Indian tribe and gambling interests.

The interest groups funneled the money through nonprofit organizations. DeLay has said he was not aware that the interest groups were covering any expenses.

Meanwhile, some of DeLay's political allies have been indicted in unrelated fund-raising irregularities in Texas.

Hastings said yesterday that the Ethics Committee was prepared to use its power to investigate information gleaned ''through public and other sources." He was accompanied for the announcement by Representatives Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, and Judy Biggert of Illinois, all Republicans. The only ethics panel Republican missing was Lamar Smith of Texas.

The ethics panel is the one committee in the House that has equal representation among Republicans and Democrats. Mollohan, the committee's ranking Democrat, and others in his party have refused to allow the full committee to convene in 2005 in protest of the rules changes.

Without the support of at least one Democrat, the probe cannot begin.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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