House Republicans opened the way Wednesday for a new ethics inquiry into House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's activities by yielding to Democrats in a fight over the rules governing such investigations.
DeLay, the Texas Republican admonished three times last year by the House ethics committee, said earlier Wednesday that he would welcome a new examination to answer questions about who paid for some of his overseas trips.
The House of Representatives voted 406-20 Wednesday evening to change the rules. When an inquiry into DeLay's activities might begin remained unclear.
To protest new rules governing the ethics panel that Democrats said were designed to protect DeLay, Democrats had refused to let the panel convene.
After weeks of national publicity about DeLay's questionable practices had begun to take a toll on the image of Republicans, the impasse broke Wednesday when House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., announced he was "willing to step back" from the new rules to end the committee deadlock.
Though he didn't mention DeLay by name, Hastert said, "there's a member, especially on our side, that needs to have the process move forward so he can clear his name. Right now he can't clear his name."
The attention to DeLay stems largely from his association with lobbyists now under investigation, either in Washington or Texas. News reports have focused on several foreign trips for which, in violation of congressional rules, lobbyists or foreign entities appear to have paid.
"I look forward to providing the facts to the committee once it's up and running," DeLay said Wednesday. "I will be asking them to look at these issues as it not only pertains to me, but the entire House. . . . Obviously, there are questions that need to be answered by the ethics committee as to what trips can be taken, how can they be taken, under the rules of the ethics committee."
All five Republicans on the ethics committee have financial ties to DeLay, either contributing to his legal defense fund or receiving campaign contributions from him, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The center said Wednesday that raises a possible conflict of interest for committee members who now will judge DeLay. The members called the contributions normal for the party's most generous leader. Others said their contributions to DeLay wouldn't affect their ethics committee work.
Hastert's retreat was a rare victory for House Democrats.
Until this week, top GOP leaders had been steadfast in support of the new ethics rules, adopted in January, arguing that they were fairer and prevented politically inspired investigations.
Under rules in effect last year, the ethics committee had to begin an investigation even if the committee of five Democrats and five Republicans deadlocked on whether one was warranted. Republicans changed that to require a majority to approve a probe.
"I think they just took the heat," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "I think there has been an editorial in every paper in the country saying this is wrong."
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, said the GOP "does not deserve a pat on the back" for its about-face. "We should always remember that it's easy to make the right decision when the whole world is watching," she said.