Correction to This Article
Two articles, on Sept. 18 and July 24, said that Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is apparently not under investigation in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal. The articles failed to note that sources familiar with the investigation have previously said that Burns is one of the lawmakers under scrutiny. The Justice Department has made no statements about the status of any of those under investigation.
The Abramoff Echo

Corruption That Shook Capitol Isn't Rattling Elections

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006

HAMILTON, Mont. -- Sen. Conrad Burns gazed at a debate audience and asked if anyone could guess who was blocking efforts in Washington to control health-care costs.

"Abramoff?" shouted a heckler. The crowd at a packed high school auditorium here in Montana's Bitterroot Valley erupted in hoots and jeers.

Visibly angered, Burns, 71, shot the audience a don't-mock-me glare. But his debating point (blaming Democrats for health-care costs) and his senatorial dignity were swamped by the contempt of constituents who for nearly a year have been lapping up revelations about his ties to disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Burns, though, soldiered on through the catcalls and sneers -- and not without reason. He may be carrying Abramoff on his back, but in this thinly populated, Republican-leaning state, he continues to run neck and neck with his Democratic challenger, Jon Tester, president of the Montana Senate. Poll numbers have not moved much in months.

For all the influence-peddling that has been exposed in the run-up to the midterm election, corruption on Capitol Hill has not become a decisive issue -- here or in much of the country. The Abramoff scandal, having ended the careers of a few lawmakers and stained the reputations of several others, can certainly rile up ardent Democrats, as the debate here demonstrated. But it is not making fundamental changes in the nation's partisan landscape, especially in races, as with Burns in Montana, in which candidates are facing only unsavory stories rather than indictments or guilty pleas.

In an interview, the senator said his polling shows that most voters regard the "Abramoff deal" as merely a political liability and not a damning verdict on his character. Several pollsters and observers of politics in this state agreed with that assessment. The controversy is almost certainly the main reason Burns is in a competitive race this year, but by no means is it a guaranteed career-ender.

"The Democrats started way early with baseless allegations, and now a majority of people are saying, 'Oh, well,' " Burns said. "We are just moving on."

What, then, are the consequences of the oiliest congressional scandal in a generation as it percolates into races far from Washington? There are, of course, some early goners:

Tom Delay (R-Tex.), once the most powerful man in the House, resigned as majority leader and quit Congress, with Abramoff favors and an indictment for improper fundraising hanging over his head.

Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) decided not to run for reelection and pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy and making a false statement as part of his admission that he traded official acts for campaign contributions and lavish meals in the Abramoff affair.

And Ralph Reed, the telegenic former Christian Coalition executive director, lost the Republican primary for Georgia's lieutenant governor after being tarred by his ties with the lobbyist.

The hand-me-down taint of scandal could still hurt Republicans trying to win the House seats abandoned by DeLay and Ney. "Bob Ney's transgressions resonate despite his departure," said Zack Space, a Democrat running for Ney's seat. "People are very hungry for change."

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