GOP Targets Democrats On Ethics, Earmarks

House Republicans have launched a full-blown ethics offensive against the Democratic majority. The issues are ethics violations and spending earmarks, two lines of attack Democrats employed when they won control of Congress four years ago.

House Republican leader John Boehner this afternoon fired off a broadside on ethics — a resolution relating to newly resigned Democratic lawmaker Eric Massa.

Massa has admitted to groping a male staffer and has given various stories of his encounters with young men.

But salacious as those revelations might 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.

Ethics As A Springboard

In 2006 Republican leaders came under investigation. They were accused of protecting Rep. Mark Foley, who had had repeated contact with boys in the House Page Program.

The ethics committee decided the GOP leaders had been negligent but hadn't broken any rules.

The scandal helped end the Republican majority.

Boehner proposed Thursday that the House order the ethics committee to investigate Democratic leaders. But Majority Whip Jim Clyburn executed a quick tactical maneuver with a motion to let the committee decide whether 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.

"This is beginning to sound an awful lot like the run-up to 2006," Connelly says. "And frankly, it's beginning to sound like the run-up to 1994."

That's when Republicans gained their first House majority in 40 years by using ethics as a springboard.

Connelly says it's just the way things work.

"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," he says. "That is one of the few things the minority party can do in opposition."

Earmarks To Be Rejected

And the struggle is just as intense in the battle over earmarks — those provisions targeting federal funds to lawmakers' pet projects.

On Wednesday, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey said the panel will reject all earmarks directed to for-profit companies.

Now, Republicans have upped the ante. They pledged to forgo all of their earmarks on Thursday.

Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence painted a bright picture.

"By standing in favor of a moratorium on earmarks, House Republicans are making a clean break from the past," he said after the conference voted.

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 when the panel cleared five Democratic and two Republican appropriators accused of trading earmarks for campaign money.

Republican Jeff Flake said the committee should explain how it came to exonerate everyone.

"The cloud that hangs over this institution rains on Democrats and Republicans alike," he said.

But "bipartisan" isn't how it plays — not with congressional elections coming in eight months.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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