In an ethics stalemate that is rivaling the most partisan legislative struggles, House Republicans are proposing an investigation of Majority Leader Tom DeLay while threatening to put several Democrats under scrutiny as well.
Republicans made their second attempt in two weeks Wednesday to get a deadlocked House ethics committee functioning again, adding the new proposal to blunt Democratic demands for an investigation of DeLay. Some House Republicans have acknowledged the steady Democratic attacks have made them nervous.
Democrats gave no ground. They said they wouldn't allow the evenly divided committee to conduct investigations unless Republicans reversed a rule providing for automatic dismissal of cases.
The ethics committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, made the surprising offer to investigate DeLay, R-Texas. The proposal will go nowhere unless the Democrats provide votes to allow the committee to conduct business.
Democrats have criticized DeLay for taking foreign trips that may have been financed by clients of a lobbyist.
Lawmakers cannot accept trips from lobbyists, but DeLay has said he believed a nonprofit organization financed the travel as permitted under House rules.
Hastings proposed the DeLay investigation at a news conference flanked by three of the four other Republicans on the ethics panel. The committee also has five Democrats.
Senior committee Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia quickly rejected the offer, saying his party would continue blocking the panel unless a bipartisan task force was appointed to write new rules for investigating lawmakers.
"The first principle in doing it right is that it be bipartisan," said Mollohan. "That's a beginning point for me."
Mollohan would not say whether he supported an investigation of DeLay, commenting that his effort to change the rules is "totally independent from any specific case."
Democrats want to revert to a rule in effect until last January, which provided for an automatic investigation if no action was taken on a complaint of wrongdoing. The new rules provide for automatic dismissal if the committee doesn't act within 45 days — a period that can be doubled if necessary.
"This is a problem that's going to continue until both sides sit down and decide how to organize themselves and what the rules of the committee can be," said CBS News National Political Correspondent Gloria Borger.
"At this point, though, this does give Tom DeLay the opportunity to say, 'I have offered to go before the House ethics committee and the Democrats won't let me do it."
While Mollohan and Hastings spoke at dueling news conferences, Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., warned Democrats that Republicans are ready to investigate allegations of Democratic wrongdoing.
In a radio interview with broadcaster Sean Hannity, Hastert said there were "four or five cases out there dealing with top level Democrats." He did not name them.
"There's a reason they don't want to go to the ethics process. As long as they can keep somebody dangling out there like they have with Tom DeLay, they take great glee in that," Hastert said.
DeLay has offered to appear before the committee to defend himself and repeated his request after Hastings' announcement.
"I've sent letters to the committee asking to appear before the chairman and ranking member to discuss matters," he said. "And for more than a month I've said I hope for a fair process that will afford me the opportunity to get the facts out and set the record straight. I welcome the opportunity to address this with the committee."
The second-ranking House Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, called Hastings' offer "an absolute nonstarter with Democrats" and an "attempt to divert attention from the fact that the Republican majority has neutered the ethics committee in the House by imposing partisan rules." Democratic leaders have said the automatic dismissal rule was designed to protect DeLay.
The ethics committee admonished DeLay last year on three separate issues but did not find that he violated House rules. A district attorney in Texas is investigating potentially illegal corporate contributions to a Texas political committee started by DeLay.
Hastings would not comment on whether he had spoken to DeLay about the proposal — but he did say he could not speak with a member "about matters that may or may not come before the ethics committee."
Meanwhile, more questions were raised Wednesday about DeLay's ethics. An Associated Press review found that DeLay treated his political donors to a bird's-eye view of a Three Tenors concert from an arena skybox leased by a lobbyist now under criminal investigation.
DeLay's political action committee did not reimburse lobbyist Jack Abramoff for the May 2000 use of the skybox, instead treating it as a type of donation that didn't have to be disclosed to election regulators at the time.
Abramoff's relationships with DeLay and other lawmakers are under scrutiny as a federal grand jury investigates the lobbyist's work on behalf of Indian tribes and as new information surfaces about his dealings with members of Congress.