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DeLay investigation triggering 'ethics war'

The House ethics panel is to organize this week, as an investigation nears.

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A timely photo op with President Bush and a tribute at the Capitol Hilton next week signal how seriously official Washington is taking the next round of ethics investigations around embattled House leader Tom DeLay.

It's an investigation that the House majority leader says he welcomes, to clear his name. But it's also threatening to engulf other members of Congress, as opposition researchers for both parties plunge into member disclosure forms in search of lapses. The looming ethics war could write a new chapter in an long-running story of money, power, and boundary lines in Washington.

Congress has come a long way from the days when Sen. Daniel Webster penned an 1833 letter reminding banking interests that his "annual retainer" was due and important banking legislation was coming up in the US Senate. Today, he'd be swiftly expelled and prosecuted.

But even as standards have risen, so has the volume of dollars flowing through the capital. At the root of the DeLay investigation: How many degrees of separation are appropriate between lobbyist cash and politicians? The search for answers could tarnish both parties.

"We're in an ethics war that's the congressional

equivalent of mutually assured destruction," says Mike Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation. "There will be a retaliation of equal or greater force."

After months of deadlock - and a repeal of GOP-drafted ethics rule muscled through the House at the start of the new Congress - the House ethics panel is expected to organize this week. At the top of its agenda is the swirl of allegations around DeLay.

If confirmed, the charges that lobbyists paid for DeLay's travel to Russia, London, Scotland, and South Korea would be a violation of House rules. He also faces a deferred ethics complaint over alleged illegal corporate contributions to a group in Texas that he helped found.

The first signs of retaliation surfaced last week, as freshmen Reps. Patrick McHenry (R) of North Carolina and Lynn Westmoreland (R) of Georgia chastised minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland for failing to file required 30-day travel disclosure forms over a number of years. Democrats call these procedural or technical corrections.

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