Lobbyists' Power Wanes as Election Day Nears

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Many pressure groups that have grown accustomed to getting their way on Capitol Hill have found their initiatives shelved this year as lawmakers focus on security-related matters and rush to leave town to campaign for reelection.

Congress plans to recess at the end of this week and to return only briefly after the Nov. 7 elections to complete some odds and ends. Along the way, energy companies, physicians, small-business owners and high-tech firms -- all favorites of the Republican majority -- have been deprived of legislative victories.

"That's the source of a lot of frustration," said John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, one of Washington's most potent corporate lobbies and a frequent GOP ally. "The substantive agenda is getting run over by the political agenda."

Washington lobbyists and voters from back home who are visiting at the behest of trade associations are packing congressional offices -- making last-minute pitches for pet proposals such as beefed-up write-offs for restaurant renovations and the extension of an expired tax credit for corporate research.

But lawmakers are being forced to say no to most of these pleas. The main reason: Republican leaders have decided to dedicate the session's few remaining days to their most pressing, highest-profile issues, such as immigration, military spending and homeland security, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

This bottleneck has disappointed and angered organizations that have worked closely with the GOP and have won many legislative benefits. Oil and gas producers, for instance, had high hopes of adding to their legislative gains the opening of drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. Though the House and the Senate have approved differing bills to allow that, the prospect of final passage is fading as Congress moves closer to the door.

"We're still trying to get this done," said Richard D. Shelby, executive vice president of the American Gas Association. But with the odds at "less than 50-50," he added, "it's understandably frustrating to find yourself unable to push the ball across the goal line."

The American Medical Association has also been denied its top priority -- preventing a scheduled cut in Medicare's physician reimbursements -- despite intense lobbying including a recent "fly-in" of 400 doctors to Washington and a history of preventing similar reductions each year since 2003.

"The frustration is that Congress knows what the problem is," said Cecil B. Wilson, chairman of the association. He added that the chance that Congress would roll back the cut after the election in a lame-duck session in November "is considerably less."

The National Restaurant Association sent nearly 700 restaurant owners to Capitol Hill to beg their representatives to pass a long list of measures, including bills that would permanently repeal the estate tax, create special health plans for small businesses and extend write-offs for restaurant improvements. But Steven C. Anderson, the restaurant association's president, said, "If it doesn't have the word 'terrorism' or 'national security' in it, I don't think much is going to happen."

Some groups are complaining publicly that their proposals are being given short shrift.

Representatives of technology companies are defying GOP leaders by seeking to separate their prized research-credit extension from a larger and chronically stalled bill. They also contend that the leaders had pledged to pass the "tax extenders" by now.

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