WASHINGTON — Republican members of the House Ethics Committee offered Wednesday to investigate House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), but Democrats quickly rejected the proposal as a political ploy.
The GOP offer was contingent on Democrats ending a boycott of the Ethics Committee. The Democrats said they would not agree to the request because, in their view, committee rule changes had hamstrung the panel's ability to investigate House members.
The Republican offer to investigate DeLay -- the target of recent questions about his travel and links to a controversial lobbyist -- intensified the battle over the Ethics Committee. That fight erupted in January when Republicans pushed through the changes to its rules.
The Democrats refused to accept the rules then, and reiterated that position Wednesday -- even though it meant passing up a chance to investigate DeLay, the second most powerful man in the House.
"If we were to adopt these rules, we would undermine seriously the ability of the committee to do its job," Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) said Wednesday. He is the ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee, which is known officially as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
The response by Democrats sparked a rebuke from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who accused them of playing politics in the dispute.
In an interview on Fox News Channel, he noted that DeLay had said he was open to an investigation by the ethics panel. But, Hastert said, "as long as the Democrats won't let the Ethics Committee form, they have it both ways" -- continuing to criticize DeLay without giving him a chance to clear his name.
Hastert suggested that Democrats may fear that a working ethics panel would train a spotlight on ethics violations by their own members.
There are "probably four or five cases out there dealing with top-level Democrats," Hastert said. "There's a reason they don't want to go to the ethics process."
But House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) dismissed the GOP offer as "a charade and an absolute nonstarter with Democrats, who reject it out of hand."
Hoyer said the move was "a calculated attempt to divert attention from the fact that the Republican majority has neutered the Ethics Committee by imposing partisan rules that hamstring any meaningful inquiry."
The roots of the dispute go back to last year when the Ethics Committee -- the only House committee divided equally between Democrats and Republicans -- unanimously admonished DeLay three times for various political tactics.
Earlier this year, the House Republican leadership removed the Ethics Committee chairman and three other Republican members -- replacing them with members considered more loyal to the leadership, including two who had contributed to DeLay's legal defense fund.
The new rules include one requiring the automatic dismissal of a complaint if the committee failed to act on it 45 days after it was filed; another would require a majority vote to initiate investigations.
Previously, the committee faced no deadline for acting. And, if it deadlocked on whether a complaint warranted investigation -- a strong possibility given its equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats -- the investigation was automatically launched.
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), ethics panel chairman, told a news conference Wednesday that he would provide his "ironclad commitment" that the panel would have at least three months to look into complaints, instead of 45 days.
Hastings then made the surprise announcement that Republicans were willing to demonstrate their commitment to ending the dispute over the ethics panel by supporting the investigation of DeLay.
"I am well aware that one of the principal concerns voiced by the critics of these new rules is an outrageous and completely baseless claim that they are designed to protect Majority Leader DeLay from a formal investigation," Hastings said.
The committee has been paralyzed as the ethical clouds surrounding DeLay thickened.
News reports have raised questions about the financing of some of DeLay's overseas trips; about his practice of employing his wife and daughter on his campaign staff; about his association with Jack Abramoff, a powerful lobbyist for Indian gaming interests, who is now under federal investigation for his lobbying practices; and about lobbying efforts by former DeLay staffers.
DeLay has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and said he has not violated any House ethics rules. He has said he is the victim of a campaign by Democrats and liberal watchdog groups that wish to destroy the conservative majority in the House.
DeLay said Wednesday he appreciated Hastings' effort to get the Ethics Committee "up and running."
"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," he said.