updated 5/4/2005 9:17:06 PM ET 2005-05-05T01:17:06

Republicans backtracked in an ethics controversy Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, deciding that two GOP members of the ethics committee should withdraw from any investigation of Tom DeLay because they contributed to the majority leader’s legal defense funds.

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The decision followed months of Democratic complaints that Speaker Dennis Hastert appointed Republicans Lamar Smith of Texas and Tom Cole of Oklahoma to make the panel more favorable to DeLay, R-Texas.

Smith and Cole replaced two Republicans who voted to admonish DeLay on three separate matters in 2004. Hastert also had refused to reappoint the former Republican chairman of the committee, Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado, who presided over the rebukes. Hefley had asked to remain chairman this year even though his term had ended.

Ethics committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., Smith and Cole issued separate statements saying the recusals would avoid any questions of partiality.

The statements followed a meeting where the evenly divided panel formally adopted investigative rules, allowing itself to initiate investigations and receive complaints of member misconduct.

Republicans back off on ethics rules
Last week, Republicans retreated from the investigative rules they had adopted in January without Democratic support. After Democrats complained that the rules were designed to protect DeLay, the GOP caved in and allowed a vote to reinstate rules that had been in place for a decade.

DeLay is certain to face an ethics inquiry this year, because he has requested one.

Questions have been raised about whether Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist now under criminal investigation, paid for foreign travel by DeLay and several aides — despite House rules prohibiting lawmakers from accepting travel expenses from lobbyists.

DeLay has said he had no knowledge that Abramoff, or any of his clients, paid for travel and told reporters he’s ready to provide the committee years of travel records.

Hastings, the chairman, said the Smith and Cole contributions to DeLay’s legal defense funds “raised doubts — however unwarranted — about whether those members would be able to judge fairly allegations of impropriety against Mr. DeLay.”

DeLay has had several funds over the years to help him defend himself in different controversies.

Smith contributed $5,000 last year to help DeLay defend himself in the ethics probe, causing a potential problem because one of the matters under investigation was deferred. That issue, involving corporate contributions in Texas to a political committee started by DeLay, could be revived after Texas authorities conclude a criminal investigation.

Smith also contributed $5,000 in 2000 to help DeLay’s defense against a civil lawsuit.

Cole donated $5,000 last year, during the ethics committee’s investigation.

Smith, a former ethics committee chairman, said in a statement, “I continue to believe that I could judge this matter fairly and I remain committed to judging other matters that come before the committee fairly.

“However, any decision of the committee on any matter relating to Mr. DeLay will come under intense scrutiny. To ensure that any decision is final and not subject to any question, I believe it will be in the best interests of all concerned to recuse myself in such a situation.”

Cole said he was confident he could be fair and impartial, but added, “I believe it is important for the committee and for the House that its actions be viewed as nonpartisan and objective by the members of this institution and by the public.”

In a reference to Democratic critics, he added, “Those that sought to politicize the ethics process should start putting the institution ahead of their partisan agenda.”

DeLay pushes clearer travel rules
Meanwhile, DeLay told reporters on Wednesday that the committee should issue clearer rules on travel sponsored by private groups.

He said he would prefer that the committee “set up a process by which a member can go to them and submit a proposed invitation on a trip — whether it be foreign or domestic — and the ethics committee approve or disapprove it.”

“Then everybody knows what is proper and isn’t proper,” DeLay said. “I think that is the best way to go. I’m not suggesting that. I’m not pushing it. I’m asking the ethics committee to look at this as a problem for the institution.”

Hastert made similar comments.

“I think there needs to be real guidance by the committee about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.” I think we’re going to take a look at it,” he said.

Also Wednesday, a former Democratic congressman said he will try to win DeLay’s congressional seat. Nick Lampson represented an adjacent district until the redrawing of political boundaries that DeLay engineered cost Lampson enough Democratic voters that he lost to Republican Ted Poe in 2004.

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