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.
According to witnesses, the handful speaking for the wider election -- including Sweeney, Lungren and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) -- were outnumbered 5 to 1 by those opposed, including committee chairmen such as Barton and Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) of the Agriculture Committee.
But once the motion went to a secret ballot, the ratio for and against it proved much closer. Republican leadership aides conceded they were surprised -- and distressed -- by the vote, but dismissed supporters of the resolution as a disjointed band of malcontents, protest voters and members seeking to knock off individual leadership members for personal reasons.
"It's an interesting environment, where people cast their votes with all kinds of motivations," Blunt said afterward.
Close as it was, the vote was a good sign for Blunt. He has offered himself up as the candidate of continuity, experience and proven leadership against Boehner and Shadegg, who have called for more dramatic change.
The divisions over the lobbying rule changes could prove to be a longer-term headache for Republican leaders. After Abramoff's guilty plea, Hastert and Dreier rushed to announce they would put forward a tough package that would ban privately funded trips for lawmakers and limit the value of gifts to $20. The ban on House floor access for lawmakers-turned-lobbyists and the lobbyist spouses of current lawmakers was to be the first act of the 2006 session of Congress, a sign of how serious Hastert is.
But leaders returned to Washington this week to find many lawmakers less than enthusiastic. Boehner called the ban on privately funded trips "childish." Others said the immediate disclosure of gifts, not a limit on the gifts' value, would more effectively limit lobbying influence.
Oxley said banning the access of former lawmakers to the gym would stifle social calls in one of the last locations where bipartisanship reigns. He also suggested that convicted felons, such as Cunningham, could use the House gym while respected former lawmakers could not. "We've clearly overreached," Oxley said on the House floor.
After the House vote yesterday, several members, including Oxley and DeLay, walked to the Senate side of the Capitol to attend a social event. Among those in attendance: former representative Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) and former senator Rod Grams (R-Minn.), both of whom became registered lobbyists.