ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Republicans in the House of Representatives have launched an ethics offensive against the Democratic majority. Their lines of attack: one, enforcement of ethics rules, and two, limits on spending earmarks.
As NPR's Peter Overby reports, Democrats used both when they won control of Congress four years ago.
PETER OVERBY: House Republican leader John Boehner this afternoon fired off a broadside on ethics: a resolution relating to the newly resigned Democratic lawmaker Eric Massa. A clerk started reading.
Unidentified Man: Whereas on March 8th, 2010, Representative Eric Massa resigned from the House. Whereas numerous newspapers and other media organizations reported in the days before and after Mr. Massa's resignation that the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct was investigating allegations that Mr. Massa sexually harassed members of his congressional staff. Whereas...
OVERBY: Massa has given various stories of his encounters with young men. But salacious as they may be, Republicans don't want to investigate him. They want to find out if Democratic leaders knew about Massa's conduct and covered it up. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pushed Massa staffers to take their concerns to the ethics committee. But Republicans are raising questions about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, which has not yet responded. And for Boehner, it's a deja vu opportunity.
In 2006, Republican leaders came under investigation. They were accused of protecting Congressman Mark Foley, who had had repeated contacts with boys in the House page program. House ethics decided the GOP leaders had been negligent but hadn't broken any rules. The scandal helped end the Republican majority.
And so today, Boehner proposed that the House order the ethics committee to investigate Democratic leaders. But Majority Whip Jim Clyburn executed a quick tactical maneuver.
Representative JIM CLYBURN (House Majority Whip; Democrat, South Carolina's 6th Congressional District): Mrs. Speaker, I move that a resolution be referred to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
OVERBY: Clyburn would let the committee decide if it should investigate. The House voted with him 404-2. At Washington and Lee University, politics professor William Connelly Jr. says the Democrats' deja vu problem is real.
Professor WILLIAM CONNELLY Jr. (Political Science, Washington and Lee University): This is beginning to sound an awful lot like the run-up to 2006. And frankly, it's looking a lot like the run-up to 1994.
OVERBY: Which is when, Republicans gained their first House majority in 40 years using ethics as a springboard. Connelly says it's just the way things work.
Prof. CONNELLY Jr.: The minority party's job is to hold the majority party's feet to the fire, and to point out when there are ethical lapses. That is one of the few things that the minority party can do in opposition.
OVERBY: And the struggle is just as intense in the battle over earmarks those provisions targeting federal funds to lawmakers' pet projects. Yesterday, the Appropriations chairman, Democrat David Obey, said the panel will reject all earmarks directed to for-profit companies. Today, Republicans upped the ante. They pledged to forego all of their earmarks. Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence painted a bright picture.
Representative MIKE PENCE (Chairman, House Republican Conference; Republican, Indiana's 6th Congressional District): By standing in favor of a moratorium on earmarks in this Congress, House Republicans are making a clean break from the past.
OVERBY: But neither of these is a blanket ban. Democrats prohibit only the kind of earmarks that most often get linked to ethics cases, but they say it's permanent. Republicans prohibit all earmarks no exceptions but only for this year. The anti-earmarks competition was inadvertently fueled by the ethics committee last month. The panel cleared five Democratic and two Republican appropriators. They were accused of trading earmarks for campaign money.
Yesterday, Republican Jeff Flake said the committee should explain how it came to exonerate everyone.
Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona's 6th Congressional District): The cloud that hangs over this body reigns on Republicans and Democrats alike.
OVERBY: But bipartisan isn't how it plays not with congressional elections coming in eight months.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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