Ethics fight rages as Congress convenes

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., along with his wife, Kitty, participates Tuesday in the mock swearing-in ceremony with Vice President Dick Cheney at the U.S. Capitol.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 4, 2005 at 11:46 p.m.
WASHINGTON - With a dash of pomp and a dose of controversy over ethics rules, the new Congress convened Tuesday, more Republican than the old and intent on tackling Social Security and the rest of President Bush's ambitious agenda.
"In this Congress, big plans will stir men's blood," pledged Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, elected to a fourth term as speaker on the strength of the GOP majority.
Across the Capitol, Vice President Dick Cheney swore in the 34 senators elected on Nov. 2. Among them were seven GOP freshmen who helped swell GOP ranks from 51 to 55 and leave Democrats with their smallest representation in seven decades.
It is customarily weeks or months at the beginning of a two-year Congress before lawmakers get down to work on major legislation, and there was no pretense that this year would be different.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee was leaving Tuesday night on a trip to India, a country hard hit by last month's tsunami. Bush isn't expected to deliver his State of the Union address until early February, and lawmakers also need the White House's tax and spending proposals before budget hearings can begin in earnest.
More immediately, House Democrats appeared unlikely to prevail in their attempt to derail GOP-backed changes in ethics rules, following a series of concessions that Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay blessed on Monday night.
Still, the Democrats made the issue the first fight of the 109th Congress in what amounted to a continuation of a 2004 ethics controversy involving DeLay.
"The proposed changes are destructive and unethical," evidence of Republican arrogance and pettiness, charged Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., looking across the House floor to the Republicans, said, "The lesson we have today is you have the power and you break the rules and you can change them."
Specifically, the Democrats focused fire on a proposal to require a majority vote of the ethics panel for any complaint to be pursued. Membership of the panel consists of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, meaning that lawmakers of either party could unify and block action.
Current rules provide for an automatic investigation of a complaint unless the full committee decides on an alternative approach. That procedure, in effect since 1997, replaced a requirement for a majority vote that had been in effect for many years.
DeLay said the Democratic criticism was the first of what will become "countless personal attacks against the integrity of the majority and ultimately against the House."
Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo. who was chairman of the ethics committee last year, said he had concerns about the changes but intended to support them nonetheless. That was not the case, he said, until GOP leaders agreed to modifications.
Republicans retreated on two points Monday night.
One, a matter of party policy only, reinstated the rule that requires a party leader to step aside if indicted. Republican leaders had proposed eliminating that requirement late last year in a gesture of support for DeLay. Three associates of the Texas lawmaker are under indictment in Texas on state charges. DeLay has not been indicted, and his aides depict the investigation as politically motivated.
On another point, Republicans agreed to retain a rule that applies to the entire House. It requires lawmakers and employees to conduct themselves "at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House," a standard that has often been cited by the ethics committee as cause for action against House members.
"They came to their senses," said Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, referring to leaders of his own party.
Barring the changes, LaHood said in an interview, many rank-and-file Republicans had been prepared to reject the recommendations of their leaders and support Democratic alternatives.
The visitor galleries were crowded in both the House and Senate as the opening gavels fell at noon. Children squirmed in grown-up-sized seats on the House floor as moms, dads and grandparents took the oath of office - some of them for the first time. Proud parents looked on, too, including former Sen. Connie Mack, in the House to witness his son and namesake join the ranks of America's lawmakers.
"This is getting tiresome, Mr. Speaker," Pelosi joked as she handed Hastert the gavel he will wield for two more years.
In formal remarks, Hastert pledged action on Social Security, including Bush's call to allow individuals to invest a portion of their payroll taxes on their own. Also on the agenda over the next two years, he said, will be transportation and energy bills as well as legislation to limit lawsuits.
"We also must start a national debate on completely overhauling our tax code," he said, using terms that left open the question of whether he envisions legislation on the subject over the next two years.
Cheney's duties also brought him face to face with Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, elected to a sixth term in November. Once the vice president cursed the senator in a memorable conversation on the Senate floor. This time, they shook hands.

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