Lobbying, Ethics Overhaul Endorsed by Senate

The Senate approves tighter ethics rules. The ethics reform bill makes it illegal for legislators to accept gifts, meals, and even travel from lobbyists. And it requires them to make public 48 hours in advance any plans for spending on pet projects. It goes now to President Bush.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Our business news starts with Congress approving an overhaul of lobbying rules.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: That crackdown on lobbying grew out of scandals that showed an insidious relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers. The best known of those lobbyists is Jack Abramoff. He's now serving time in prison.

Last night, the Senate approved the most ambitious effort in a decade to tighten ethics rules. The bill makes it illegal for legislators to accept gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists. And it requires lawmakers to make public, 48 hours in advance, any plans for spending on pet projects. The bill now goes to President Bush.

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President Bush Cool to Ethics Reform Bill

President Bush gave a cool reception to a new Democrat-sponsored ethics reform bill that would forbid lawmakers from taking such perks as meals, gifts and travel from lobbyists, saying it doesn't go far enough.

The bill follows numerous scandals involving members of Congress, including Republican Sen. Ted Stevens. His Alaska home was searched this week by federal agents probing alleged influence-peddling.

Like the House, the Senate passed the bill by a margin that would seem to make it veto proof.

Some advocates called it the biggest advance in congressional ethics in decades. But Bush received it coolly, saying it does not go far enough.

The president has "serious concerns" about the measure and has not decided whether to sign it, said White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore.

The bill's parameters for spending projects were not effective and travel provisions were deemed impracticable, according to Lawrimore.

Democrats, however, shrugged off the president's response and hailed the 83-14 Senate vote as proof they are fulfilling their 2006 campaign promise to crack down on lobbying abuses, which sent some lawmakers and a prominent lobbyist to prison.

The bill would require lawmakers seeking targeted spending projects, or earmarks, to publicize their plans in advance. Lawmakers and political committees also would have to disclose those lobbyists who raise $15,000 or more for them within a six-month period by bundling donations from many people.

Aside from barring lawmakers from taking gifts from lobbyists or their clients, the bill further requires former senators and high-ranking executive branch officials to wait two years before lobbying Congress. Ex-House members would have to wait one year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called it "the most sweeping reform bill since Watergate."

But several Republicans said it fell short of requiring full disclosure of earmarks, which have soared in number, and controversy, in recent years. Some earmarks fund popular civic projects that boost a lawmaker's re-election prospects. Others help large contractors or other companies that hire lobbyists and donate to campaigns.

Bush feels the earmark disclosure requirements are "toothless," Lawrimore said. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., agreed during the Senate debate.

The bill "has completely gutted the earmark reform provisions we overwhelmingly passed in January," McCain said. He broke with former allies on ethics matters, including Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

"By any measure," Feingold said in the debate, the bill "must be considered landmark legislation."

Under the bill, lawmakers seeking earmarks would have to publicize their plans 48 hours before a Senate vote. They would have to certify they have no direct financial interest in the items.

McCain said senators could circumvent the requirements by stating that timely disclosure was not technically feasible or by having the majority leader declare a bill earmark-free.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it was ludicrous to suggest someone in his position would "cheat and lie" to hide earmarks.

The bill would require senators and candidates for the Senate or White House to pay full charter rates for trips on noncommercial planes. House members and candidates would be barred from accepting trips on private planes.

Lawrimore called the travel provision unworkable because a first-term president seeking re-election would have to pay extremely high sums to cover the full cost of using Air Force One on political trips. Campaign committees for presidents, who always fly on military craft for security reasons, now pay the government the cost of a first-class ticket when using Air Force One, Lawrimore said.

She said Bush also objected to the two-year "cooling off" period for top executive branch officials seeking to become lobbyists. It is "literally a double standard," she said, because ex-House members would have a one-year wait.

The legislation marks Congress' strongest reaction yet to scandals involving former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif. Both are now in prison on corruption charges that in some cases involved congressional earmarks.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley expressed incredulity at the White House objections. "What in the world is going on here?" he said, noting the overwhelming Republican majorities for the bill in both chambers of Congress.

Enactment of the bill, he noted, would require Republicans to disclose donations by lobbyists such as Abramoff — who was a major Bush donor — and would prevent the White House "from ferrying candidates around on Air Force One in next year's elections."

All 14 senators who voted against the bill were Republicans. Stevens of Alaska was among them.

The nonprofit group Public Citizen said the bill amounts to "far-reaching lobbying and ethics reforms."'

Fred Wertheimer of the watchdog group Democracy21 said it will give the public "comprehensive information about the multiple ways in which lobbyists provide campaign funds and other financial support" to lawmakers they seek to influence.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave the measure a lukewarm endorsement.

"This bill isn't nearly as tough as it would have been on earmarks if Republicans had been involved in writing it," McConnell said. "But weighing the good and the bad, many provisions are stronger than current law."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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