Republicans Halt Ethics Legislation

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2007

Senate Republicans scuttled broad legislation last night to curtail lobbyists' influence and tighten congressional ethics rules, refusing to let the bill pass without a vote on an unrelated measure that would give President Bush virtual line-item-veto power.

The bill could be brought back up later this year. Indeed, Democrats will try one last time today to break the impasse. But its unexpected collapse last night infuriated Democrats and the government watchdog groups that had been pushing it since the lobbying scandals that rocked the last Congress. Proponents charged that Republicans had used the spending-control measure as a ruse to thwart ethics rules they dared not defeat in a straight vote.

"It's as obvious as the sun coming up somewhere in this world that they tried to kill this bill," a furious Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said last night in an interview. "And all 21 Republican senators up for reelection are going to have to explain how they brought down the most significant reform ever to come before this Congress. They brought this baby down."

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said insistence on a line-item-veto vote was proof that the GOP is serious about passing the toughest possible overhaul of the way Congress conducts its business. Efforts to give Bush power to strike individual items from spending bills have been struck down by the Supreme Court, but Senate Republicans insist that the latest version will pass constitutional muster.

The bill was to be the Democratic-controlled Senate's first piece of legislation, a statement of bipartisanship and a break from the scandals that helped return the party to power. Instead, a measure that began with Reid and McConnell as co-sponsors was chased from the floor in a partisan showdown when Republicans prevented the Democratic leadership from bringing it to a vote. The 51 to 46 vote was nowhere close to the two-thirds majority needed to break the Republican filibuster.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he hopes "this is just going to be a bump in the road," but, he added, "this is going to be a long road over the next two years and this is not a good start."

The bill matched the rule changes approved earlier this month in the House, banning meals, trips and gifts from lobbyists. But it went beyond those internal alterations to effect legal changes that would have reached far beyond Capitol Hill. Democrats pushed amendments that would have forced lobbyists to publicly divulge the small campaign contributions they collect from clients and "bundle" into large contributions. Lavish gatherings thrown by lobbyists and corporate interests at party conventions would have been banned.

And interest groups would have had to reveal the money they spend on campaigns to rally voters for or against legislation, a provision that had raised the ire of conservative activists such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform as well as the National Right to Life Committee. Proponents of the provision said it would combat activities brought to light during the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff, a once-powerful Republican lobbyist now in federal prison, channeled millions of dollars from Indian gambling clients through nonprofit groups run by former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and Norquist to fund campaigns against rival tribal interests.

Opponents of the provision waged a backroom campaign against the bill, but ultimately its undoing came on an unrelated measure. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) demanded a vote on a measure long-sought by Bush that would allow the president to submit to Congress a list of spending items the White House wishes to strike from congressionally passed spending bills. Congress would then be forced to vote on whether to sustain or accept those rescissions.

Democrats argued that the measure had nothing to do with ethics and lobbying reform, but Republicans said their efforts were no different from the gambit that Democrats took last year, temporarily derailing a weaker ethics bill by demanding a vote against the takeover of U.S. port management by a Dubai-owned shipping company.

Reid and McConnell worked to reach a compromise that would have brought the Gregg bill to a vote in the coming weeks, but that pact could not overcome the objections of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), an opponent of the line-item veto.

Government watchdog groups did not think that the fight had anything to do with spending authority and everything to do with the ethics bill.

"Whatever they're saying, Republican votes tonight were votes to prevent the Senate from enacting major lobbying and ethics reforms to deal with corruption scandals in Congress," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21. "I don't think anyone's getting away with anything here."

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