The Washington Post
A House Democratic leader said yesterday that he plans to press for an investigation by the chamber's ethics committee of alleged Republican vote-buying during deliberations on a new Medicare drug plan last November, threatening to end an informal agreement among lawmakers to refrain from triggering inquiries against one another.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority whip, said the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct should open a probe into statements by Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) that GOP colleagues offered to funnel donations to his son's congressional campaign if Smith voted for the Medicare bill -- and threatened to work against the son's bid if Smith voted against it.
The Medicare bill, a priority for the Bush administration, passed the House 220 to 215 on the morning of Nov. 22 after lengthy debate and a seesaw movement by members from the opposition camp to the supportive camp.
Smith voted against the bill, and wrote in a commentary after the vote that House Republican leaders had used "bribes and special deals" to eke out their victory. Other lawmakers have said Smith told them he was offered $100,000 in campaign funds for his son.
Smith later said he misspoke about that amount, but he has declined to clarify the matter or identify those who allegedly made the offer and threats.
Hoyer requested an ethics probe last month in a letter to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), first reported in yesterday's editions of the New York Times. But Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the speaker has no intention of demanding such a probe. The issue, he said, was "really the purview of the ethics committee and not the speaker's office."
In an interview yesterday, Hoyer said he plans to raise the issue with Hastert again but added, "If there is no action, and the only alternative is an individual complaint . . . frankly I would expect that to happen." Some Republicans have alleged that Democrats are complaining because they lost the vote. Hoyer said: "These are not Democratic assertions. These are Republican assertions against a Republican."
"Until such time as the committee renders its own conclusions on the matter, the House will operate under a cloud of public suspicion," Hoyer said in his letter.
His comments appear to undo an informal truce between Republicans and Democrats on ethics matters. Under a 1997 rule change, only members of Congress are allowed to make formal ethics complaints. On some occasions in recent years, the House ethics panel has acted only after criminal courts rendered judgments against members.
The Justice Department said in December that it was reviewing complaints filed by the Democratic National Committee and two independent groups about Smith's assertions. But Smith's chief of staff, Kurt Schmautz, said the congressman -- who has promised to cooperate with any official inquiry -- has not been interviewed by the Justice Department.
Justice Department spokeswoman Casey Stavropoulos said the complaints are under review.