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First item as Congress convenes: Change the rules

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The most obvious object of such changes is House majority leader Tom DeLay, who was admonished by the House ethics panel three times last year and faces a possible criminal indictment by a grand jury in Texas.

Last month, the Republican caucus reversed its own 2003 rule that would require leaders to resign, if criminally indicted. (House Democrats have no comparable rule, although they promise to pass one.) That meeting, which went on for hours, ended in a decision not to record the vote - a sign of how controversial the majority leader is becoming within his own party.

In October, the ethics panel admonished Mr. DeLay for the appearance of favorable treatment to a lobbyist, misuse of a federal agency in a Texas political dispute, and an "improper" offer to a colleague in exchange for a vote. Another inquiry, still pending, involves possible campaign-finance violations in Texas. Three close aides of DeLay were indicted in Texas on Sept. 21 for misuse of corporate funds.

House leaders who are proposing the rule changes insist they are needed to protect the process. "The changes are mostly technical in nature. The goal is to take partisanship and politics out of the ethics process," says John Feehery, a spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert.

But Democrats and other critics say the move aims to protect power and lower the standard of ethics in the House. Today, eight government watchdog groups are calling on the House to reject any change that discourages members of Congress from filing valid ethics complaints. "Outside groups should be able to file valid complaints with the ethics committee," says the Congressional Ethics Coalition, which also cautions GOP leaders to "not retaliate" against members of the ethics committee when it finds a breach of ethics rules.

Even some Republicans who are convinced that the attacks on DeLay are politically motivated worry that the rule changes at this time send the wrong message to voters. "It could hurt us in 2006," says a senior GOP House aide.

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