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Chemical Makers and Trial Lawyers Square Off Over Iraq Spending Bill

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Everyone knows that President Bush is angry because the Iraq spending bill is larded with billions of dollars of giveaways to spinach farmers, peanut storage facilities, shrimp fishermen and the like.

But when it comes to the parts of the bill he really cares about -- in addition to a timetable for withdrawal, of course -- Bush has singled out a provision that you probably have not heard of: imposing extra security requirements on the nation's chemical plants.

His position on this important issue of wide public concern has sparked a battle between two titans of K Street -- the chemical industry and trial lawyers.

The president has formally complained to Congress that the spending bill would allow states to override new federal regulations that lay out the ways that chemical makers have to secure their facilities. Those rules were championed by the American Chemistry Council, the powerful trade association for chemical producers, and its allies, which defend the regs as thorough and exactly what the public needs.

The American Association for Justice, the lobby formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, disagrees and is leading its own coalition to upset those rules. It argues that the regulations would prevent states such as Maryland, New Jersey and New York from imposing security procedures that are tougher than the federal government's. It also wants to use the Iraq bill to get rid of a law that hampers citizens' ability to sue chemical makers in the case of a terrorist attack.

At the moment there are two versions of the Iraq spending bill -- one from the House, the other from the Senate -- and both contain provisions that the lawyers like and that the chemical makers, and Bush, hate.

If, as expected, the measure's final version sides with the lawyers, the veto battle between the White House and Congress will be about more than a timetable and a bunch of pork-barrel projects. It will also determine how safe chemical plants and the people around them will be in an era of constant danger.

Drug War: PhRMA Vs. AARP

A vote could come as early as this week in the Senate Finance Committee over whether the federal government must negotiate with drug companies to cut the cost of pharmaceuticals for Medicare. The drug industry's lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has spent millions to try to prevent that from happening.

AARP, the senior citizens' lobby, has also been lobbying furiously, but in favor of the measure, which it says would lower drug prices for the Medicare beneficiaries it represents. Last Wednesday, the 38 million-member group staged a "national call to action day" that instigated 10,000 telephone calls to senators from around the country. It also held media events in the states of a dozen senators whose votes are up for grabs and ran radio and print ads in 10 states urging voters to contact their senators.

Still, AARP faces an uphill climb. The bill, which has cleared the House, faces a Republican-led -- and PhRMA-encouraged -- filibuster on the Senate floor.

Lobbyists to the Rescue

There was a time when politicians did not want to be seen consorting with lobbyists for fear that the public might think the lobbyists' clients would get an unfair advantage in the halls of power. Not anymore.

After presidential wannabe John McCain (R-Ariz.) stumbled badly in his first-quarter fundraising, the senator turned to former congressman and big-time lobbyist Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.) to take charge of his money operation. Not that it matters, but in case you wanted to know, Loeffler's clients include the above-mentioned PhRMA, AT&T, Toyota North America and the National Association of Broadcasters.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, also in hot water, has gotten media advice from Edward W. Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and co-chairman of one of Washington's largest lobbying firms, Quinn Gillespie & Associates. Gillespie's long list of clients includes AT&T, Verizon, Bank of America and DaimlerChrysler. Just FYI.

A Lesson in Big-Money Fundraising

The pressure to contribute has been immense lately, especially from the Democrats, newly in charge. So the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has come up with a fresh approach: offering advice on how to earn enough money to donate even more.

On May 8 at New York's Loews Regency Hotel, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) will host a dinner and cocktails with Warren E. Buffett, the country's most renowned investor. Buffett is not just the world's second-richest man and a board member of The Washington Post Company, he's a longtime advocate of campaign finance reform. So along with financial tips, Buffett can provide donors some political cover.

That will certainly come in handy. The cost of a single ticket is a jaw-dropping $28,500, the maximum that an individual can give to the DSCC. A table of eight is a relative bargain: $100,000, raised from several people at the table.

Buffett's advice had better be sage.

Political Cash Turns Blue

That big sucking sound you're hearing is the campaign committees of Democratic members of Congress pulling millions of extra dollars out of the pockets of interest groups and corporate PACs.

The Democratic victory in last year's midterm elections has reversed the giving patterns of the nation's largest political action committees -- the funds that lobbying organizations use to donate to candidates for public office. In this year's first two months, the 10 largest corporate PACs donated 55 percent of their money, on average, to Democrats. Those same PACs contributed an average of 35 percent of their money to Democrats during the 2006 elections, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

Lobby Bill? What Lobby Bill?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been promising since February that the House will pass a lobbying and ethics bill, but nothing has happened. Her spokesman Drew Hammill now predicts a vote in late April or early May.

I was thinking of holding a contest asking readers to guess when the vote might actually take place (and our No. 1 In the Looper, Al Kamen, even offered to donate an In the Loop T-shirt for the winner).

But because it's possible that a vote will never happen (after all, similar promises were made and ignored by congressional leaders last year), I have decided to skip the contest. Instead, I will note what progress has -- or has not -- been made. Stay tuned.

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