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Democrats Keep Pushing on Ethics

When House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced he was pulling the Democrats' ethics bill from consideration Wednesday after complaints erupted about it from both parties, he suggested that the next step would be for the two parties to get together to discuss the proposal and how to proceed.

Republicans are now waiting for Democrats to invite them to the bargaining table, but they may have to wait a while, because Democrats are working their own members to figure out if they can get a majority for the bill -- which would create a new Office of Congressional Ethics to screen complaints against lawmakers -- without having to make substantive changes or yield to GOP demands.

In her press conference today, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) downplayed Wednesday's setback and suggested the proposal was still alive and well.

"I think [Democratic members] wanted to learn more about it and we will pass it in the very very near future," Pelosi said.

How soon will the bill be back? It could be as soon as next week. Earlier today, Democratic leaders and aides took the temperature of their Caucus during a series of unrelated floor votes, contacting each Democratic member to see where they stood on the ethics bill and figure out how close they are to getting a majority.

A certain number of GOP members -- particularly those in competitive reelection races -- will vote for the Democratic proposal if it does come to the floor. What the Democratic whip team is trying to determine now is whether there will be enough of those Republican defectors to cancel out the "no" votes of Democrats unhappy with the bill.

Many Democrats expressed fears Wednesday that the outside ethics office would be the source of potentially frivolous complaints that would smear members' reputations. And Republicans complained that under the Democrats' plan, just two of the six individuals running the office could initiate an investigation of a member, while it would take four people to stop a probe. That setup means an investigation could be started on a partisan basis but only halted by a bipartisan majority.

Asked about changing the proposal, Pelosi said, "There may be some tweaking," but made clear that she was not budging from the basic concept of creating a new outside ethics office. She also was not interested in changing the proposal so that only a majority of people in the office could start a probe, but she did suggest a potential change: Two individuals could still initiate a probe, but only if it was one Democrat and one Republican.

Pelosi also argued that a new ethics body would serve to weed out weak allegations, rather than forwarding them on to the ethics committee.

"I see the outside entity as one that can get rid of nuisance filings," Pelosi explained.

But Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the chief deputy minority whip, reiterated today that Republicans viewed the outside ethics office as "a strictly political instrument for partisan gain on the outside. What is critical is to have the inside process work again."

Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), the GOP's point man on the ethics bill and author of the party's competing proposal, said he's "looking forward to the Speaker keeping her promise to sit down on a bipartisan basis" to discuss the issue.

That may still happen, but don't expect Democrats to bring Republicans into the discussion unless they absolutely have to.

By Ben Pershing  |  February 28, 2008; 2:35 PM ET
Categories:  Dem. Leaders , Ethics and Rules  
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