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Charges no longer a bar to leadership

WASHINGTON -- Emboldened by their election successes, House Republicans changed their rules yesterday to allow majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas to keep his post even if a grand jury indicts him.

At the same time, Senate GOP leaders continued to weigh changing longstanding rules that govern filibusters to prevent Democrats from blocking some of President Bush's judicial nominees.

Republicans were less assertive 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, which is 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 who are 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 with 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," said the House minority whip, Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

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

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, said he has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans during his long career.

Republicans said neither DeLay nor Speaker Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, addressed the caucus meeting, which lasted several hours. Hastert later said the rule change 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 Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat who chaired the Ways and Means Committee and 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 that govern the filibuster, a tactic that both parties have used over the years to block proposals that cannot muster the 60 votes needed to shut off debate. Republicans are angry that Democrats have used the filibuster to block 10 of Bush's 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.

Under this rarely used procedure, the Senate's presiding officer, presumably Vice President Dick 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.

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