House Speaker Dennis Hastert is leaning toward removing the House ethics committee chairman, who admonished House Majority Leader Tom DeLay this fall and has said he will treat...

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WASHINGTON — House Speaker Dennis Hastert is leaning toward removing the House ethics committee chairman, who admonished House Majority Leader Tom DeLay this fall and has said he will treat DeLay like any other member, several Republican aides said this week.

Although Hastert, R-Ill., has not made a decision, leadership aides expect the chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., long at odds with party leaders because of his independence, to be replaced when Congress convenes next week.

The aides said a likely replacement is Rep. Lamar Smith, one of DeLay’s fellow Texans, who held the job from 1999 to 2001. Smith wrote a check this year to DeLay’s defense fund. An aide said Smith was favored for his knowledge of committee procedure.

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Republicans are bracing for the possibility that DeLay, who is the chamber’s second-ranking Republican and holds enormous sway over lawmakers, could be indicted by a Texas grand jury conducting a campaign-finance investigation that the party contends is politically motivated.

The effort by DeLay and his allies to preserve his leadership post, even if he faces criminal charges, is one of the most sensitive issues facing Republicans as the new Congress begins.

“It certainly seems they’re circling the wagons,” a GOP staff member who declined to be identified said of House leaders.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., yesterday issued a statement critical of a change in the ethics panel.

“It is our responsibility to uphold a high ethical standard — removing a chair of the ethics committee for upholding that standard would be a stain on the House of Representatives,” the statement said.

The aides said the stated reason for Hefley’s removal is likely to be that it is time for him to rotate off the committee after serving as chairman since January 2001. An aide to Hefley declined to comment.

Hefley, a conservative, was co-author of an October letter saying that certain DeLay actions “went beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct.” A committee report said DeLay broke no House rules.

Pelosi’s statement was provided by Bloomberg News.