Hastert Ethics Plan Takes Friendly Fire

Times Staff Writer

One of three Republicans vying to replace Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as House majority leader offered rare public criticism Tuesday of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), saying he disagreed with key elements of Hastert’s plan to overhaul the chamber’s ethics rules.

Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) questioned Hastert’s call for a ban on travel by House members and their staffs paid for by private groups, indicating he considered such a proposal “childish.”

It is unusual for any House Republican, particularly one fighting to join him in the leadership, to publicly question a move by Hastert. Later in the day, Boehner issued a statement modifying his remarks and saying he supported the travel ban.


Still, his initial comments, made to reporters, reflected a sense among some Republicans that their leadership may have overreacted to the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff that has yet to result in the indictment of a single member of Congress.

“I think there is some sense of that, yes,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del)., a moderate who supports changes in ethics rules.

Hastert proposed the travel ban as one of several steps he said would help Congress rid itself of the taint caused by Abramoff, who in early January pleaded guilty to federal charges of fraud and conspiracy to bribe lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides. Abramoff is cooperating with a federal task force investigating influence-peddling on Capitol Hill.

In his remarks to reporters, Boehner said: “Some of the proposals that have been thrown out there are childish. A ban on all private travel ... I just don’t agree with it.”

He added: “We shouldn’t treat members [of Congress] like children.”

Boehner also dismissed the notion that tighter restrictions on gifts that members may accept from lobbyists -- another measure Hastert has proposed -- would be a meaningful reform. “If some members’ vote can be bought for a $20 lunch, they don’t need to be here,” he said.

Boehner said he believed the best approach was to require more and faster disclosure of gifts and travel.

In his follow-up statement, Boehner said, “Earlier today, speaking off the cuff, I used a poor choice of words to express the reservations about some of the proposals I’ve heard put forth in recent weeks under the guise of lobbying reform.”

He said he had not intended to label the travel ban as “childish,” and that he would back the ban.

“While I do have some reservations about the way such a ban will work in practice, those concerns are outweighed by the need to restore public confidence in our institution in the wake of the Abramoff scandal,” his statement said.

The race to replace DeLay has become increasingly nasty in recent days, with Boehner and Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who styles himself the only true reformer in the contest, each accusing front-runner Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) of making promises to members in order to win their votes. Blunt has denied the allegations.

But House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), a Shadegg supporter, told the Wall Street Journal on Monday that he believed Blunt had won commitments from Texas Republicans by promising to give jurisdiction over telecommunications legislation to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, headed by Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas.).

Sensenbrenner wants his committee to handle the bill.

“Whether any of these stories are true, I don’t know,” said one House Republican leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing the charges. “But that the rumor mill is working overtime, absolutely.”

DeLay stepped down from his leadership post in September, after he was charged in Texas with violating state campaign finance laws, and Blunt has served as his temporary replacement. House Republicans are to vote Thursday on a permanent successor.

The campaign over the post has opened new fissures among House Republicans. A conservative faction has urged GOP leaders to recommit themselves to slashing the federal budget, taxes and the size of the federal government, while some moderates have pushed for a focus on ethics reform.

A dispute also has developed about whether Thursday’s contest should be restricted to replacing DeLay or expanded to include other leadership positions except for the speakership. That decision is due to be made today when House Republicans gather in a closed session on Capitol Hill.

Some GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Dan Lungren of Gold River, argue that only a vote on every leadership post below Hastert’s will show voters that Republicans are serious about charting a new course.