First Item as Congress Convenes: Change the Rules ; House Considers New Ethics Policies. Senate Eyes Rules Affecting Judicial Nominees

Article excerpt

As the 109th Congress opens this week, Republicans are considering rule changes that will rein in the ethics process in the House and curb the minority's capacity to derail judicial nominations in the Senate.

If passed, these changes would signal how a GOP majority that gained seats in the 2004 vote plans to use its new clout to protect its leaders and move the president's agenda.

But they also risk ratcheting partisan animosities in both houses even higher and opening the Republican leadership to charges of overreaching and abuse of power - the themes that GOP insurgents used to topple 40 years of Democratic control of the House a decade ago.

Less than a third of the current Republican Conference were in the House when Democrats controlled the chamber with an iron fist. That compares with nearly half of current Democrats. "Most Republicans weren't there when Democrats overreached and became politically tone deaf," says Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

Moreover, with an incumbent reelection rate of 98 to 99 percent, "the great majority of Republicans aren't going to have a competitive race again," she says. "Theoretically, it's a dangerous combination."

In a meeting Monday night, the House Republican caucus is to vote on new rules that raise the threshold for ethics cases. According to a draft circulated to GOP members, these could include:

* Exempting lawmakers from the standard that a member should "conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House," so long as the lawmaker has otherwise followed "applicable laws, regulations, and rules."

* Ending an investigation if there is a tie vote. (The House ethics committee is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.)

* Allowing a member to respond to an admonishment before it is made public.

The most obvious object of such changes is House majority leader Tom DeLay, who was admonished by the House ethics panel three times last year and faces a possible criminal indictment by a grand jury in Texas.

Last month, the Republican caucus reversed its own 2003 rule that would require leaders to resign, if criminally indicted. (House Democrats have no comparable rule, although they promise to pass one.) That meeting, which went on for hours, ended in a decision not to record the vote - a sign of how controversial the majority leader is becoming within his own party.

In October, the ethics panel admonished Mr. DeLay for the appearance of favorable treatment to a lobbyist, misuse of a federal agency in a Texas political dispute, and an "improper" offer to a colleague in exchange for a vote. Another inquiry, still pending, involves possible campaign-finance violations in Texas. Three close aides of DeLay were indicted in Texas on Sept. 21 for misuse of corporate funds.

House leaders who are proposing the rule changes insist they are needed to protect the process. …