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House Passes Ethics Bill Amid Squabbling

After several halting attempts in recent weeks, House Democratic leaders were finally able to get an ethics reform bill through the chamber tonight, passing the measure by a misleadingly wide margin, 229-182.

In the end, 196 Democrats and 33 Republicans voted in favor of the measure, while 159 Republicans and 23 Democrats voted against the bill, which would create a new Office of Congressional Ethics to screen potential complaints against members and pass them on to the existing Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

The margin of victory was misleading only in that the bill was the subject of heated partisan debate all day, and several Republicans appear to have registered their affirmative votes only when it was clear the bill would pass. (Whip teams in both parties are usually willing to "release" their most vulnerable lawmakers on politically important votes, particularly if it appears that the other side will prevail anyway.)

The vote on final passage -- technically on what's called a "self-executing rule" -- came only after a contentious squeaker of a procedural vote on what's known as the previous question. Had that vote failed, that would have been the end of the bill. The previous question passed 207-206, with just four Republicans joining 203 Democrats in voting "yea," and 18 Democrats joining 188 Republicans in voting "nay."

The previous question actually appeared to be failing for much of the time the vote was being taken, and Democratic leaders held the vote open for several minutes in order to persuade enough Democrats to switch their nay votes to yea. The GOP was more unified than either side expected on the question, partly due, perhaps, to the late release today of a memo suggesting that the Ethics Committee's professional staff opposed the reform bill.

Once the gavel came down on the vote, Republicans immediately began shouting in protest, suspecting that Democrats might have violated the rules of the House. At the beginning of this Congress, Democrats implemented a new rule saying a floor vote "shall not be held open for the sole purpose of reversing the outcome of such vote." That change was a response to Republicans' repeatedly doing exactly that when they were in the majority, most famously when they held open the 2003 vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill for nearly three hours while they twisted arms on the measure.

Republicans complained tonight that Democrats had violated that new rule on the vote on the previous question (and there would be some irony if they had indeed broken the rules in passing an ethics reform bill, right?). But the GOP could not figure out how to challenge or reverse the vote immediately. You can bet we will hear much more about tonight's vote in the coming days, as the GOP adds it to their litany of allegations that the majority is mismanaging the House and running roughshod over the rights of the minority. As for Democrats, they're probably just happy to have this vote -- and this contentious issue -- behind them.

By Ben Pershing  |  March 11, 2008; 11:56 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , House  
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