Senator Resumes Lobbyist Huddles

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 9, 2006

After saying in January that he would end his regular meetings with lobbyists, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), the third-ranking GOP leader in the Senate, has continued to meet with many of the same lobbyists at the same time and on the same day of the week.

Santorum, whose ties to Washington lobbyists have been criticized by his Democratic challenger, suspended his biweekly encounters on Jan. 30. His decision came as Democrats named him as their top target in November's Senate races, and after the guilty plea of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff to charges of conspiring to corrupt public officials.

But in the month since his announcement, Santorum has held two meetings attended by the same core group of lobbyists, and has used the sessions to appeal for campaign aid, according to participants. Both of those meetings were convened at the same time as the previous meetings -- 8:30 a.m. -- on the same day of the week -- Tuesday -- and they lasted for about as long as the earlier meetings -- one hour.

Instead of being held in the Capitol, however, the recent meetings were conducted nearby. The first was held about three blocks away, at the headquarters of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the second was held around the corner from that building, at the Heritage Foundation.

The Capitol meetings had been convened to advance the GOP's cause by enlisting lobbyists to back its agenda. The meetings were largely information exchanges during which Santorum and other Republicans gave speeches and fielded questions from the assembled lobbyists.

Democrats had lambasted Santorum's Capitol meetings in large part because, at the end of most of them, a representative of the Republican National Committee distributed lists of Washington-based lobbying job openings, and participants often discussed which GOP congressional aides and former lawmakers might be best suited for those jobs.

After the outcry by Democrats and others, Santorum announced that the lists would no longer be distributed at the meetings, and then he canceled the meetings entirely.

Now, his aides said, he has resumed the meetings with lobbyists. Their purpose is to help Santorum's reelection effort, but many of the same topics other than jobs are discussed, aides and participants said.

Mark Rodgers, staff director of the Senate Republican Conference, said that the old meetings had been sponsored by the conference, had sometimes included other lawmakers, and had been meant to get out the GOP message to interested groups in Washington. The recent meetings were largely about how the lobbyists and other attendees could help Santorum's fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts in Pennsylvania, Rodgers said.

As for the meetings' time and locations, he said: "It happens to be convenient on the boss's schedule."

Rodgers said the new meetings have added 20 to 30 people to their invitation lists, while retaining from the old list 40 of the 70 or so lobbyists who had been regularly invited.

Santorum is considered the Senate Republicans' most vulnerable incumbent. Democrats recruited Pennsylvania Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., the son of a former governor, to challenge him this fall, and recent polls show Casey ahead.

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