House Republican leaders are urging members to alter one of the chamber's fundamental ethics rules, which would make it harder for lawmakers to discipline a colleague.

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WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders are urging members to alter one of the chamber’s fundamental ethics rules, which would make it harder for lawmakers to discipline a colleague.


The proposed change essentially would negate a general rule of conduct that the ethics committee has cited often in admonishing lawmakers — including Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas — for bringing discredit on the House even if their behavior was not covered by a specific regulation. Backers of the rule, adopted three decades ago, say it is important because the House’s conduct code cannot anticipate every instance of questionable behavior that might reflect poorly on the chamber.


Republicans, returning to the Capitol next week after increasing their House majority by three seats in the Nov. 2 election, also want to relax a restriction on relatives of lawmakers accepting foreign and domestic trips from groups interested in legislation before the House. A third proposed rule change would allow either party to stop the House ethics committee from investigating a complaint against a member.


Now, if the panel, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, deadlocks on a complaint, the matter automatically goes to an investigative subcommittee after 45 days. The proposed change would drop any complaint not backed by a majority vote to move it forward.


Government watchdog groups called the proposals startling and unjustified. If adopted next week, as GOP leaders suggest, they would amount to “the biggest backtracking on House ethics rules that we have seen,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.


The proposals are among nearly two dozen House rule changes being circulated for comment this week by GOP leaders, in preparation for the 109th Congress. The majority Republican caucus will discuss the proposals Monday, with the full House scheduled to vote on them Tuesday.


Several Republicans have criticized the ethics process after three admonitions last year against DeLay. A House official familiar with the new proposal on the discredit rule said the ethics committee could not have acted against DeLay if the change had been in place.


A high-ranking House GOP aide, who could speak only on background because of his office’s rules, said many lawmakers support the rule change because they do not want the ethics committee to be able to act against a member by saying “we’re not sure what he’s done wrong, but we don’t like it.”


The House Code of Conduct requires members and aides to conduct themselves “in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House.” The ethics committee over the years has cited the provision in, for example, rebuking DeLay for his dealings with a Kansas-based energy company seeking legislative favors. DeLay’s actions did not violate a specific law or House rule, the panel concluded last fall, but they reflected poorly on the House.


Under the proposed change, lawmakers automatically would be in compliance with the Code of Conduct if they meet the narrower standard of following “applicable laws, regulations and rules.”


House Republicans earlier this year rewrote a party rule so that DeLay can keep his leadership job even if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury. The grand jury has indicted three political associates in an investigation of campaign finances related to a House redistricting plan that DeLay helped push through in Texas.


Republican aides said Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., also is leaning toward removing the ethics committee chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who oversaw the admonishments of DeLay.


The proposed rule on travel would benefit single members, who would be able to take a parent, according to an aide. Now a House member’s child or spouse may accompany a lawmaker or staff person on a privately funded but officially connected trip at the sponsor’s expense. The rule change would expand that to cover any relative.