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Democrats Struggle With Ethics Bill

Democratic leaders in the House are still struggling to find support within their party for an ethics bill they promised to pass when they took over Congress.

Just hours after House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said yesterday morning that a bill to reform the ethics process would be on the House floor today, Democratic leaders decided to delay the measure yet again because they still couldn't rally enough Democratic support to push it through.

Hoyer said last night that the bill would not come up today, punting the issue until at least next week. That move came a week after Democrats canceled a scheduled vote on the measure following an internal revolt against it, and after the measure's author, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), had made changes that the leadership had hoped would be enough to bring members on board.

The bill would create a new Office of Congressional Ethics to screen potential complaints against members and forward ones deserving further scrutiny to the existing Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for its consideration. The new office would be run by a bipartisan board of six non-members who would be jointly appointed by the Speaker and the Minority Leader.

But while Democrats tweaked the bill's language -- specifically adding a requirement that the ethics office could only begin to review a matter if at least one Democrat and one Republican agreed on it -- a large number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are still opposed to the very idea of creating a new outside office at all.

Republicans have complained that creating the office would just add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to the process, and that the real problem is the existing ethics committee, which regularly gets bogged down in partisan gridlock, moves slowly and operates almost entirely in secret. And many Democrats worry that the new office will be unaccountable and possibly tarnish members' reputations through its actions.

Having worked for weeks to rally support, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) now faces a choice. She can further tweak the bill and bring the weight of her office to bear on members in hopes of pushing it through, likely on a narrow, mostly party-line vote. Or she can admit defeat, jettison the proposal for a new idea and start from scratch, possibly working off of the alternative proposals that have been floated. We should know by next week which path she will take.

By Ben Pershing  |  March 6, 2008; 1:17 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules  
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