Senate Keys on Ethics, Lobbying Overhaul

The Associated Press
Friday, January 5, 2007; 8:42 PM

WASHINGTON -- On the heels of new ethics rules adopted this week in the House, Senate Democrats mapped plans Friday for changing federal law to address the ethical lapses of lawmakers and their ties with lobbyists that helped bring the downfall of Republicans in the November elections.

Their starting point doesn't include the House's newly passed prohibition on lawmakers' use of corporate jets. But Senate leaders said they expect an effort to add that ban to the package during a debate on amendments of up to two weeks opening Monday.

As a starting point for their first debate of the 110th Congress, Senate Democrats will use a bill co-sponsored by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and identical to legislation that the Senate passed last March. It faltered later because of differences with the GOP-led House, which insisted on a provision that would have limited contributions to independent political groups known as 527s that in the past have tended to favor Democrats.

New Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last year's bill would have provided "the most significant reform since Watergate in lobbying and ethics."

"We will improve that legislation," the Nevada Democrat said this week, an acknowledgment of several senators' desire to go far beyond last year's bill and the House rules in restricting what lawmakers can accept from lobbyists and others outside the Congress.

The House rules, for example, prohibit members from accepting travel and hotel accommodations from lobbyists, but not foundations.

Democrats will also try to strengthen the bill with amendments to extend the ban on gifts to entities that hire lobbyists, increase criminal penalties for violations of lobbying disclosure laws and make it easier to eliminate provisions slipped into House-Senate conference reports at the last minute.

The Senate would also change its rules to bring more daylight to lawmakers' pet projects, known as "earmarks," make House-Senate conference reports more open to scrutiny and end the practice of individual senators secretly holding up legislation.

The House, under new Speaker Nancy Pelosi, devoted its first two days to changing House rules to bar members from accepting gifts and travel from lobbyists, prohibit the use of corporate jets and require greater disclosure of earmarks tucked into larger bills.

Reid, in his opening address to the Senate on Thursday, said the scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the criminal cases against several lawmakers "shocked the very core of this nation."

Americans, he said, "deserve better. That is why as our first order of business, we will seek to give Americans the open and accountable government they deserve."

The Senate bill to be taken up Monday does not touch on campaign or election changes. Democratic aides said Friday those would be addressed separately after going through committee hearings.

Unlike the House rules changes this week, which don't need Senate approval, the Senate bill changes lobbying law and thus will require House action. The House is expected to take up similar legislation in February.

As with the new House rules, the Senate bill would ban gifts from lobbyists and ban travel paid for by lobbyists or in which lobbyists participate. It requires disclosure of travel on noncommercial planes, not going as far as the House move to ban members from using corporate jets.

The Senate would make former members wait two years, up from the current one year, before they can lobby their old colleagues. Professional lobbyists would have to disclose their involvement in grass-roots efforts to encourage the public to contact their representatives through phone calls or television ads.

Neither the House or Senate address the issue of whether to create an office of public integrity, an independent body to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers. Pelosi and House Republican leader John Boehner have agreed to set up a task force to study the idea.

In the Senate, Reid wants to see the issue addressed separately, after hearings, but proponents of the office, including incoming Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., are expected to offer it as an amendment to the Senate bill.

The office is also a key component of rival ethics bills, one backed by Lieberman with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and another sponsored by Feingold and Barack Obama, D-Ill.

"I feel it is important to give the American people confidence to see that ethics complaints simply don't get shunted aside for political reasons," Obama said in support of an office of public integrity. "My feeling is we have momentum now and we should try to get it done."

© 2007 The Associated Press