House Republicans agreed Monday on rules for the new Congress that remove term limits on the speaker, create a new committee to oversee homeland security and allow lawmakers to dodge politically difficult votes on raising the national debt.
The rule changes are expected to win approval from the full House today as the 108th Congress convenes.
The changes will increase the clout of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), incoming Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and their lieutenants as Republicans push ahead with the Bush administration's legislative agenda.
For Hastert, beginning his fifth year as speaker, the new rules will enable him to serve in that position indefinitely, as long as Republicans keep the House majority.
The change scraps a four-term, or eight-year, limit on the speakership that was adopted in 1995, at the outset of the "Republican revolution" on Capitol Hill.
At the time, the GOP touted term limits as a way to reform the House after four decades of control under the Democrats. Now, after eight years in power and with at least two more years ahead of them, Republicans are emphasizing the virtues of leadership, experience and continuity.
Republican-set limits of three terms, or six years, on committee chairmen will still apply in the new Congress. But Hastert, a 61-year-old former high school teacher who is popular among the GOP's rank and file, will no longer be compelled to step aside as speaker in January 2007. This means that lawmakers in coming sessions will not be able to treat him as a future lame duck -- a significant enhancement of Hastert's power.
The proposal to abolish the term limit for the speaker was made by new House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and approved by voice vote in a meeting Monday of the 229 House Republicans, according to a GOP aide.
Hastert is to be formally reelected speaker by the full 435-member House today in a partisan vote that pits him against the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.
In a second significant organizational change, Republicans agreed Monday to a proposal by Hastert to create a select committee that will oversee the newly created Department of Homeland Security.
The temporary panel, to meet for the next two years, will take testimony from Homeland Security Secretary-designate Tom Ridge and other top officials as the giant Cabinet agency takes shape. By taking the issue away from other established House committees and the chairmen that run them, the new panel will allow the GOP leadership to keep closer tabs on the largest federal government reorganization of the last half a century. The new department is expected to have more than 170,000 employees coming from 22 different agencies.
In a third change, Republicans agreed to a procedure that will allow Congress to raise the limit on the national debt without a direct vote on the issue in the House.
Under the new rule, any budget the House approves that requires raising the legal ceiling on the national debt will automatically include House approval of such an increase. In effect, a vote for the annual federal budget may become a vote on the federal debt.
This rule had been in effect in previous years in the House but was suspended in 2001 and 2002 during the 107th Congress at the urging of Republican fiscal conservatives. But last year, the debt limit became a controversial issue as a reluctant Congress was forced to authorize the government to borrow more money to keep it running. House Democrats derided their Republican counterparts at the time for moving slowly on the issue.
The new rule, Hastert spokesman John Feehery said, will prevent the debt limit in the future from becoming "a political football."