updated 4/26/2005 7:37:58 PM ET 2005-04-26T23:37:58

The chairman of the House ethics committee has conceded that his Republican colleagues must reverse partisan changes to investigative rules if they hope to break a deadlock that has virtually shut the panel down, a senior GOP aide said Tuesday.

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The conclusion reached by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., may be unpopular with Republicans who muscled the changes through the House in January. Since then, GOP lawmakers have had to defend their votes against accusations by Democrats — and media editorials — that the changes were designed to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay from further investigation.

The senior Republican aide, who has been involved in discussions on the rules, said he was not authorized to be quoted by name in describing the private discussions.

The ethics committee is one of the few places minority Democrats can assert power in the House because it is equally divided between five Republicans and five Democrats. The Democrats have refused to provide a sixth vote to allow the committee to commence operations, including conducting investigations.

The aide would not discuss advice that Hastings gave Speaker Dennis Hastert but said he was under the impression that the speaker agreed the House must be willing to somehow change its January decision to get the ethics panel functioning.

The aide’s assessment was in line with Hastert’s comments to The Wall Street Journal last week, when the speaker said he wouldn’t rule out a vote to reverse the changes.

DeLay chastised for conduct
DeLay was admonished by the committee last year on three separate aspects of his conduct, and new questions have been raised about whether a lobbyist — who is under investigation by federal authorities and Congress — paid for his foreign travel in violation of House rules. DeLay has denied any wrongdoing and said he believes the travel was financed properly by the groups sponsoring his trips.

The change that upset the Democrats the most would require a majority vote to launch an investigation and prevent automatic dismissal of a case. That, for instance, would require at least one Republican vote to investigate DeLay.

The GOP aide said that Republicans would continue to defend their changes as necessary to provide more fairness to members under investigation. Likewise, they would keep asserting the changes had nothing to do with DeLay.

Rather, the argument would be that it’s more important to place the ethics committee back in operation than to insist on rules that keep it deadlocked.

Reverse earlier rules?
One option under consideration would be to reverse the January rules now and then have a bipartisan effort to propose changes. That is what the committee’s senior Democrat, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, has proposed.

Republicans hold a closed door meeting every Wednesday, and the ethics rules are expected to be a major topic of discussion.

Until the speaker and Hastings gauge the sentiment at the meeting, it is not clear whether the party will allow a reversal that would amount to a full retreat.

Simply permitting a second vote on the ethics rules would not satisfy the Democrats if Republicans did not support changes.

The senior GOP aide said “Hastings and Hastert are working to find a solution. It’s damaging to the institution not to have the ethics process up and running. Hastings is increasingly convinced that legislative action is needed to resolve the dispute. The House is going to have to vote to resolve this.”

Hastings tried to end the deadlock last week by proposing an investigation of DeLay, but Democrats rejected any solution short of changing the rules.

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