Ethics Bill Clears the House in Tight Vote

By Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 28, 2006

The House narrowly cleared the way yesterday to vote on an overhaul of congressional lobbying rules after hours of contentious, closed-door meetings yielded a Republican agreement to broaden measures to rein in home-district pet projects and other narrow special-interest amendments.

The 216 to 207 vote followed a tumultuous day in which the measure had to be set aside for five hours while Republicans met in emergency session to revive the faltering legislation. Up to the moment a vote was held last evening, House Republican leaders feared an embarrassing defeat.

But a last-minute deal between House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and rebellious Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee salvaged the legislation, which is now scheduled for a vote Tuesday.

Hastert promised appropriators that they would not alone be targeted by a provision that requires narrowly tailored "earmarks" be identified by the names of their sponsors and be subject to a special type of vote that could remove them. The leadership pledged to broaden the earmark provision in later negotiations with the Senate so that it will apply to all sorts of legislation, from transportation to taxation.

Appropriators were incensed that the pending ethics bill would apply the strict new rules only to their 11 annual spending bills, which fund the federal government. Had the provision been in place last year, they complained, it would not have blocked the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska, which helped spawn Congress's anti-earmarks drive in the first place. That much-criticized project was part of an authorization bill drafted by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, not an appropriations bill.

Even with the eleventh-hour backing of the GOP appropriators, the measure that passed yesterday, called a rule, almost failed. The vote had to be held open longer than usual before it garnered a majority. A solid phalanx of Democrats and 12 Republicans, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.) and fellow party members pushing for stronger measures, cast votes against the legislation.

The bill would require lobbyists to file quarterly instead of semiannual disclosures, and to include in those reports the donations they give to federal candidates and political action committees. Lobbyists would also have to make public the value of any gift that they give to lawmakers or congressional aides. In addition, appropriations bills would have to list any earmarks that they contain, as well as the sponsors of those projects. Ethics training would become mandatory for House employees under the legislation.

The measure was slated to come to a vote at noon but was abruptly yanked from the House floor after a brief debate. Aides confirmed that it was clear then that the rule did not have enough support to pass, largely because of the appropriators' defection. Earlier in the morning, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had met privately with GOP appropriators and learned about their firm objection to being singled out in the ethics bill.

By 12:15, Republican leaders convened an emergency, members-only conference in one of the Capitol's largest and most ornate rooms, the House Ways and Means Committee chamber in the Longworth House Office Building.

In contrast to the regal surroundings, participants said the meeting was loud and pointed. Several appropriators frankly expressed their opposition; other lawmakers said the defeat of the measure would be a black eye for Republicans who are trying with the bill to distance themselves from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose guilty plea in January prompted the reform effort.

Still others, such as Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) said the bill was less than a window dressing and should be rejected. Later, to reporters, he called the bill "pathetic." On the House floor, he added: "We're losing our moral authority to lead this place."

But it was not until a later, 45-minute meeting in the Capitol among the appropriators -- including former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) -- Hastert and Boehner that the accord was struck to save the ethics bill.

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