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House Ethics Bill Inching Back to Life

Five days after House Democrats were forced to pull a proposed ethics reform bill from consideration in the face of stiff opposition, party leaders are busy tinkering with the plan in hopes of bringing it back to life.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who chaired a bipartisan task force on ethics and crafted the original proposal, sent House members a letter today with suggested amendments to last week's plan. If his changes get a good reception, at least among Democrats, the bill could be back on the floor as early as this week.

The original plan called for the creation of a new Office of Congressional Ethics, run by a bipartisan group of six outside board members, who would screen potential allegations against lawmakers and decide whether to forward them on to the existing Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for investigation.

Despite criticism of that idea by members of both parties, that new outside office remains in the plan. But Capuano has suggested a few changes. All six board members must be jointly appointed -- three Democratic appointees must be approved by Republicans, and vice versa. The original version of the plan would have allowed each party to make its own choices if the other side has stalled for 90 days. That time limit has now been removed.

Under the old plan, two board members could initiate an investigation, or "review," while it took four of them to halt a probe. That meant an investigation could be started on a partisan basis, and only stopped by a bipartisan group.

Under Capuano's new proposal, a probe can be initiated only by at least one Democrat and at least one Republican. And the probe would need at least one more vote - for a total of at least three - to move on from there.

"Taken together, these ... amendments make it impossible to initiate a partisan witch hunt and impossible to use partisan stonewalling to thwart a reasonable review once it has begun. Members are protected, but so is the integrity of the process," Capuano wrote to his colleagues.

Capuano's changes also include tougher language prohibiting lawmakers and their aides from "inappropriately communicating" with board members or staff from the outside ethics office about a pending case.

Democratic leaders still have to brief their members about these changes in person at the party caucus meeting this week, while Republicans will huddle to figure out their own next move. The GOP put forth its own proposal last week that does not include an outside office and would instead add former members of Congress to the existing ethics committee while adding new requirements for the committee to act quickly.

Republicans have been generally opposed to the idea of creating the new ethics office at all, so it's not clear that Capuano's changes will bring many GOP votes over. But at least some Republicans, particuarly vulnerable ones, will vote "aye." If enough Democrats sign on to the new plan, it will come back to the floor and pass, with or without most Republicans' support. Such is life in the minority.

By Ben Pershing  |  March 3, 2008; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules  
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