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First item as Congress convenes: Change the rules

House considers new ethics policies. Senate eyes rules affecting judicial nominees.

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As the 109th Congress opens this week, Republicans are considering rule changes that will rein in the ethics process in the House and curb the minority's capacity to derail judicial nominations in the Senate.

If passed, these changes would signal how a GOP majority that gained seats in the 2004 vote plans to use its new clout to protect its leaders and move the president's agenda.

But they also risk ratcheting partisan animosities in both houses even higher and opening the Republican leadership to charges of overreaching and abuse of power - the themes that GOP insurgents used to topple 40 years of Democratic control of the House a decade ago.

Less than a third of the current Republican Conference were in the House when Democrats controlled the chamber with an iron fist. That compares with nearly half of current Democrats. "Most Republicans weren't there when Democrats overreached and became politically tone deaf," says Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

Moreover, with an incumbent reelection rate of 98 to 99 percent, "the great majority of Republicans aren't going to have a competitive race again," she says. "Theoretically, it's a dangerous combination."

In a meeting Monday night, the House Republican caucus is to vote on new rules that raise the threshold for ethics cases. According to a draft circulated to GOP members, these could include:

• Exempting lawmakers from the standard that a member should "conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House," so long as the lawmaker has otherwise followed "applicable laws, regulations, and rules."

• Ending an investigation if there is a tie vote. (The House ethics committee is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.)

• Allowing a member to respond to an admonishment before it is made public.

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