Lobbying Changes Divide House GOP

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006

Just two weeks after House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) pledged to pass far-reaching changes to the rules of lobbying on Capitol Hill, House Republican members pushed back hard against those proposals yesterday, charging that their leaders are overreacting to a growing corruption scandal.

In a tense, 3 1/2 -hour closed-door session, many Republicans challenged virtually every element of the leadership's proposal, from a blanket ban on privately funded travel to stricter limits on gifts to an end to gym privileges for lawmakers-turned-lobbyists. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), a veteran conservative who is seeking a top leadership post, scoffed that Congress knows how to do just two things well -- nothing and overreact, according to witnesses.

GOP leaders did withstand a motion to force every leader but Hastert to stand for reelection today. Yet the motion was backed by 85 of the roughly 200 Republicans at the meeting, after leaders predicted that it would attract little support.

"I always figure you have to look in the mirror before you go out in the morning. All we were doing was asking us to look in the mirror," Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the motion, said after the vote. "The shadow of [Jack] Abramoff is not a mere distraction but a serious problem to address."

House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), who was to unveil a draft of the full lobbying reform package yesterday, instead announced it was not ready. Dreier did press forward with a change in House rules that bans former members who have become lobbyists from the House floor and the House gym. It also strips lobbyist spouses of current lawmakers of floor and gym privileges.

The rule change passed overwhelmingly, 379 to 50, but not before Democrats -- and some Republicans -- ridiculed it as meaningless. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) suggested that lawmakers compromise and change the rules so that lobbyists must yield to lawmakers who want to use the gym equipment they are on.

"I'm a gym guy; I've never seen anybody lobbied there," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "I've never seen any nefarious plots hatched on the treadmill."

Among those voting no were some of the House's most powerful and connected members, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), and former majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

Taken together, yesterday's events suggested that House Republicans are badly divided over how to respond to a scandal that includes the guilty plea of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), the loss of a committee chairmanship by Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), and the cooperation with prosecutors by Abramoff, a once-prominent GOP lobbyist, who pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

Whereas leaders want restrictions on the interactions between lobbyists and lawmakers, many in the rank and file prefer more disclosure of contacts. Still, many of the lawmakers chafing at Hastert's proposals have said the leadership team needs to be reconstituted to demonstrate that the party is taking the scandal seriously.

House Republicans will meet again today to elect a majority leader to succeed DeLay, to choose a new chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, and possibly to pick a new majority whip, if the current whip, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), wins the majority leader's post. DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader last year after he was indicted in Texas on political money laundering charges, which touched off a power struggle. Shadegg and Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) are also vying for the majority leader post.

Despite the defeat of the motion to open more leadership slots to challenge, its advocates say the closer-than-expected vote sent a message to leaders. The motion, by Lungren and Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.), had been expected for days, but leaders, especially Blunt, repeatedly said it would garner very little support.

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