Santa came early to GOP leader Tom DeLay on Wednesday.
House Republicans showed their appreciation of the majority leader by approving a rule change that could enable DeLay to retain his leadership post if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury on state political corruption charges.
By a voice vote, and with a handful of lawmakers voicing opposition, the House Republican Conference decided that a party committee of several dozen members would review any felony indictment of a party leader and recommend at that time whether the leader should step aside.
The current party rule in this area requires House Republican leaders and the heads of the various committees to relinquish their positions if indicted for a crime that could bring a prison term of at least two years.
It makes no distinction between a federal and state indictment. Three of DeLay's political associates already have been indicted by that Texas grand jury.
Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, said that under the change embraced Wednesday, the House Republican Steering Committee would have 30 legislative days to review a felony indictment and recommend to all House Republicans whether a lawmaker who is charged could remain as a committee chairman or leader.
There is no indication that DeLay will be indicted in connection with a Travis County, Texas, campaign finance investigation. But the majority leader has called the probe a partisan attack on him.
Bonilla said there was no vote count taken in the closed meeting but said the proposal passed overwhelmingly.
"This takes the power away from any partisan crackpot district attorney who may want to indict" party leaders and make a name for himself, Bonilla said.
DeLay did not participate in the closed-door debate, which lasted several hours.
Earlier, Delay's office said the Texas Republican was taking no position on the move to protect him, the New York Times reported.
"The majority leader believes members of the [GOP House] conference should come to their own conclusions on this issue and that the conference should work its will without his exerting undue influence one way or the other," DeLay's communications director, Stuart Roy, told the newspaper.
A grand jury in Travis County, Texas, is investigating alleged irregularities in 2002 state legislative races. Republican victories in those contests enabled DeLay ultimately to win support for a congressional redistricting plan that resulted in the GOP's gain of five House seats in Texas in this month's elections.
House Democrats have a step-aside provision that applies to federal and state proceedings similar to the current Republican rule, and their leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, was highly critical of the GOP proposal.
"If they make this rules change, Republicans will confirm yet again that they simply do not care if their leaders are ethical. If Republicans believe that an indicted member should be allowed to hold a top leadership position in the House of Representatives, their arrogance is astonishing," Pelosi said.
In September, the grand jury indicted three political operatives associated with DeLay and eight companies, alleging campaign finance violations related to corporate money spent in the 2002 legislative races. The corporate donations were made to Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee created with help from DeLay.
DeLay said he was not questioned or subpoenaed as part of the investigation, led by retiring prosecutor Ronnie Earle.
The majority leader said after the indictments, "This has been a dragged-out 500-day investigation, and you do the political math. This is no different than other kinds of partisan attacks that have been leveled against me that are dropped after elections."
In October, the House ethics committee rebuked DeLay for appearing to link political donations to a legislative favor and improperly persuading U.S. aviation authorities to intervene in the Texas redistricting dispute.
Congress is in lame-duck session, with both parties preparing for the opening of the 109th Congress next year.
On Tuesday, Republicans gave House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois his fourth term as their chamber's leader.
Hastert, 62, told fellow House Republicans that his agenda for the upcoming session included Social Security, tax and legal reform and a continued focus on homeland security.
"What a great election," he said. "What a great time to be a Republican in Washington, D.C."