Majority Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have approved a rule change aimed at preventing their leader from having to step down in the face of any possible indictment in his home state of Texas. The move is the latest chapter in a debate with minority Democrats over ethics in Congress.
Because the majority wields so much law-making and agenda-setting power in American politics, potential problems facing a leader of the majority party in either chamber of Congress have tremendous political significance.
Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas, known as a tough political fighter publicly and behind-the-scenes, has been under an ethical cloud because of allegations raised in his home state of Texas.
Mr. DeLay led a successful effort to reorganize local congressional districts in Texas, which in turn contributed to the defeat of several Democratic members of Congress in the November general election.
Three associates of Mr. DeLay have been indicted in connection with alleged campaign finance irregularities in congressional elections in 2002, which established conditions for this year's redistricting.
There is as yet no indication Mr. DeLay himself faces indictment. However, House Republicans took pre-emptive action Wednesday, voting to change an existing party rule that would have forced Mr. DeLay to step down if criminal charges are brought against him.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. DeLay denied suggestions that he had directed members to take the action. "Members did come up to me and ask my opinion, and I gave them my opinion," he said. "But I did not instigate this; this is something the members wanted to do. It was not leader led, that is why it took hours to do. This came from the members themselves, they understand what is going on here and they were going to correct it and not let Democrats use the conference rules against the members of the conference."
Earlier, House Democrats had condemned the Republican move in advance. "It is just interesting that the first order of business following the election, on the part of the Republican majority, is to lower their ethical standards for their leaders in the Congress by saying that if indicted, you can serve," said Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Mr. DeLay and Republicans have accused the district attorney in Austin, Texas, of leading what they call a Democrat-based partisan witch hunt, in retaliation for the redistricting actions.
Texas Congressman Henry Bonilla is one of Mr. DeLay's strongest defenders. "We are trying to protect members of our leadership from any crackpot district attorney in any state in the nation, from taking on a political agenda and indicting any member for any frivolous cause that they think is important," he said.
Under previous Republican rules, party leaders have to temporarily step down if they are indicted for a crime carrying at least a two-year prison sentence.
The change agreed to Wednesday would have a House Republican committee review any indictment and then recommend whether a person should step down from a leadership or committee position.
Mr. DeLay has faced other ethics complaints, and was admonished earlier this year by a House ethics panel.
This is not the first time ethics issues have been raised against a majority leader or other members of Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans.
The latest developments involving Mr. DeLay come as Republicans flex their political muscles, vowing to use their majority to accomplish a number of major agenda items in the 109th Congress beginning in January.
Democrats, for their part, show every sign of continuing to raise the ethics charges against the controversial majority leader as they try to recover from November election losses that left them in an even weaker position.