House Democrats may file an ethics complaint if Republican congressional leaders do not open an investigation into whether bribes were offered to win passage of the Medicare prescription drug bill, a House Democratic leader said on Tuesday.
But Republicans countered that Democrats were trying to "throw mud" and end an unofficial ethics truce between the two parties that has lasted since the late 1990s.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said he was waiting for a response from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, to his written request for the ethics committee to investigate alleged bribery during an all-night House session last November.
Rep. Nick Smith, a Michigan Republican who plans to retire in January 2005, said in November that "bribes and special deals" were offered to convince members to vote yes on the prescription drug bill, but later backed off the bribery claim.
"I believe the (ethics) committee has a responsibility, a duty to look into this matter," Hoyer told reporters.
But, if Republicans do not request an inquiry, Democrats will take action seeking one "sooner rather than later," Hoyer said, adding that this could be within two to four weeks.
"One option is filing an individual (ethics) complaint," by a Democratic member of Congress, Hoyer said. "I'm trying to avoid that option," he added, but "I think somebody will do it" if the committee does not itself launch a probe.
"STARTING TO THROW MUD"
A spokesman for the ethics committee could not be immediately reached for comment. But a spokesman for Hastert said the speaker did not intend to intervene to ask the ethics committee to launch a probe.
"I think the speaker's belief is that this is a matter for the ethics committee, that they will do what they think is the right thing to do," said the spokesman, Johh Feehery.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay went further, warning that the Democrats' efforts, which he derided as part of their "campaign plan," could backfire.
"This does nothing but cast aspersions on the House and that mud will get all over all of us," DeLay told reporters. "They are starting to throw mud and try to burn down the House, and I think that is wrong."
Smith voted no on the prescription drug bill, which narrowly passed in November after House Republican leaders held the vote open for some three hours.
Smith said shortly after the vote that in the arm-twisting that went on to try to get him to change his mind, there had been offers of "extensive financial campaign support and endorsements" made for his son, Brad Smith, who is running to replace him in Congress.
However, after there were calls for a Justice Department investigation, Smith backed away from the bribery claims and issued a statement saying no one had made an offer of financial assistance for his son's campaign in exchange for his vote.