June 30, 2005

House ethics panel nears resolution of impasse

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A staffing dispute that has helpedshut down the U.S. House of Representatives ethics committeemost of this year neared resolution on Wednesday, a topDemocrat said.

Such a settlement would clear the way for the anticipatedinvestigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a TexasRepublican.

"I think we have a deal," Rep. Alan Mollohan of WestVirginia, the panel's ranking Democrat, said after talks withthe panel's chairman, Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings.

Hastings had no immediate comment.

Mollohan said in a telephone interview that they hadreached an "agreement in principle" on staffing and hoped tosign "a memorandum of understanding" as early as on Thursday.

The staffing dispute, along with a now-resolved impasseover rules, has effectively shut down the panel most of thisyear, limiting it to only a couple of meetings and preventingit from beginning any new investigations.

DeLay, admonished by the panel on three separate matterslast year, has faced new questions this year about ties tolobbyists and foreign trips paid by outside groups.

The Texas Republican has denied any wrongdoing and has saidhe was anxious to present his case to the committee.

DeLay has also accused Democrats of trying to push back anyinquiry until next year when and he and other lawmakers will beup for re-election.

Democrats have made DeLay a top target in the 2006elections, but have rejected suggestions that they have draggedtheir feet.

They have blamed Republicans for the staffing dispute,while Republicans have charged that Democrats have been atfault.

Mollohan said Democrats merely want the committee to followits own rules, and that the "agreement in principle" he andHastings reached would do that.

In a statement, Mollohan said, "I am pleased to report thatwe reached an agreement in principle that the person ultimatelyhired as the committee's chief counsel-staff director would bein charge of the professional staff, and that our own personaldesignees -- the so-called 'shared staff' -- would have nomanagerial or supervisory role over that professional,nonpartisan staff."

"Although we have made significant progress, our agreementis not final, as some issues require further discussion,"Mollohan said. "I look forward to working with the chairman toreach a formal agreement that will allow us to proceed with thecommittee's crucially important work."

Mollohan refused to discuss any possible probe of DeLay,but said, "once the staffing is complete, then the committee isprepared to fulfill all its responsibilities."

Mollohan said a staff could be hired within "several" weeksafter the signing of a formal agreement.