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Senate Passes Ethics Package

Senate Democrats hold a news conference during the stalemate with Republicans on the bill, which echoes new House rules on lobbying and transparency but, unlike them, would carry the force of law. From left are Russell Feingold (Wis.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Barack Obama (Ill.) and Richard Durbin (Ill.).
Senate Democrats hold a news conference during the stalemate with Republicans on the bill, which echoes new House rules on lobbying and transparency but, unlike them, would carry the force of law. From left are Russell Feingold (Wis.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Barack Obama (Ill.) and Richard Durbin (Ill.). (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)

The Family Research Council met with lawmakers and their staffs, conducted interviews on radio talk shows, extensively e-mailed its members and notified other organizations, asking them to contact their senators to express opposition, according to Tony Perkins, the group's president. In the end, the Senate struck the measure, 55 to 43.

"This is an issue about free speech, not an issue that is either Republican or Democratic," said Marvin Johnson, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, during the coalition's telephone news conference yesterday.

In another defeat for watchdog groups, the Senate overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to create an independent ethics counsel to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the Senate. The 71 to 27 vote was the second time that Congress has rejected the proposal in recent years.

Opposition from so many conservative activists had raised accusations from Democrats that Republicans were doing their bidding by blocking passage, but other opponents were less partisan. Lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, also talked to lawmakers about excluding from the measure's travel ban trips to Israel sponsored by the group's nonprofit foundation affiliate. The legislation, as written, would allow those trips to continue.

In addition, lobbyists' organizations worked against many parts of the Senate bill, arguing that lobbyists would still be able to spend lavishly on lawmakers under its provisions. They would just have to do so in the context of political fundraisers because fundraising activities are not addressed in the bill.

"The bill has gone from bad to worse," said Paul A. Miller, immediate past president of the American League of Lobbyists. "What's being proposed now puts us in danger of making the system even more corrupt than it is now, largely because the bill would move a lot of lobbying contacts into the realm of campaign finance, and that's more corrupting than under the current system."

But government watchdog groups said they saw much to praise in the bill, and they worked hard for its passage. After Republicans temporarily derailed it late Wednesday, the watchdogs responded furiously. Democracy 21 posted what it called a "Hall of Shame," listing the 45 Republicans that voted to filibuster the bill. The League of Women Voters condemned what it called "late night shenanigans."

"Let there be no mistake here: This was Senate Republicans thumbing their noses at the American people," declared Common Cause President Chellie Pingree.

But, ultimately, it was Byrd that tried to block all of Reid's efforts to accommodate Republican demands on a measure long sought by President Bush that would allow the president to submit to Congress a list of spending items that the White House wants to strike from congressionally passed spending bills. Under the measure, Congress would then vote on whether to sustain or accept those rescissions. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), its sponsor, called it a modest proposal to help ferret out egregious waste that leaves Congress the final say.

But Byrd decried it as "an assault on the single most important protection the American people have against a president, any president, who wants to run roughshod over [their] liberties." GOP demands for a vote were "little more than political blackmail," he said.

Under the agreement reached last night, Byrd and Gregg will rejoin that battle next week, when the spending-control provision finally comes to a vote.


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