The Abramoff Case's Partisan Fallout

The Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal is shaking up more than the House leadership. Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) steps down temporarily as chairman of the House Administration Committee after being named in Abramoff's guilty plea agreement. Ney insists he's done nothing wrong, and that he was pushed to quit his chairmanship by Republican leaders trying to limit damage from the Abramoff scandal. While Republican officials are portraying this as a bipartisan scandal, Abramoff is widely seen as the Republicans' problem.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The shakeup in the House leadership was born, in part, of the Jack Abramoff affair. The former lobbyist has pleaded guilty to a number of charges and he is cooperating with prosecutors looking into misdeeds by members of Congress and staffers. Last night Ohio Republican Bob Ney announced that he will step down for the time being as chair of the House Administration Committee. Ney has been linked to Abramoff's largesse, and as NPR's David Welna reports, both major political parties are tying to put their spin on the scandal.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid spent all last week going around to red states in the West repeating this mantra, `The Abramoff scandal is a Republican scandal.'

(Soundbite of Reid speech)

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): If you're willing to pay, they're willing--the Republicans are willing to play.

WELNA: Speaking in Phoenix, Reid was unapologetic about the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions he's taken from Indian tribes that hired Jack Abramoff to lobby Congress.

(Soundbite of Reid speech)

Sen. REID: I have done absolutely nothing wrong, have had no contact with Abramoff. And you will see as the Justice Department moves forward there will not be a single Democrat involved in this. This is a Republican scandal started more than 30 years ago.

WELNA: Reid and other Democrats call it a Republican culture of corruption. Republicans don't deny there's been corruption, but they insist Democrats are part of it, too.

Mr. BRIAN NICK (Spokesman, National Republican Senatorial Committee): It's a bipartisan issue in terms of Jack Abramoff-related money and it's a bipartisan solution that's required.

WELNA: Brian Nick is a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Mr. NICK: People agree that Abramoff--you know, the entire affair is just an awful thing and people are being prosecuted for that reason. But trying to use this as political mud-throwing is something that the Democrats have done, and so we're just getting the record straight that Democrats have received related funds as well.

WELNA: Congressional Democrats have, in fact, received about half as much money from Abramoff's clients in the past six years as Republicans have, and only Republicans have taken money directly from Abramoff. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn got a thousand dollars from Abramoff in 2002.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): It was a legal, properly reported campaign contribution. I don't intend to do anything with it. It was spent in 2002 and, to me, that's the end of it.

WELNA: Other Republicans have donated to charities money amounting to what they received from Abramoff. Some Democrats who took money from Abramoff's clients have also done the same. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin recently gave away $11,000.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Minority Whip, Democrat, Illinois): I felt better doing that. I've done that in the past. I've had a loyal friend of mine who helped me through many campaigns who got in serious trouble and I just said, `I'm going to return all those contributions.' I feel better taking those things off the books so there's no connection between what they did and myself, even though every penny received was received legally and reported.

WELNA: Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney says for Democrats taking such precautions is optional, since Abramoff is mainly a problem for congressional Republicans.

Mr. JACK PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College, Political Scientist): The Republicans have more risk. First, they have the majority, and consequently lobbyists are more likely to try to influence the Republicans. Secondly, Abramoff was an active Republican and that's where his friends were.

WELNA: That much seems clear to a lot of insiders but American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Norm Ornstein says the general public may be fuzzy on whether the Abramoff is Republican or bipartisan.

Mr. NORM ORNSTEIN (American Enterprise Institute): But if past experience is any guide, as time passes, and especially as we approach the 2006 elections, we're going to see more prominent Republicans caught in the snare here and more of a sense even if it's relatively evenly divided that if it's time for a change the people you most want to change are those who have the most seats, the ones who are running things in Washington.

WELNA: The political pedigree of the Abramoff scandal will also become more clear as the Justice Department probe continues, a probe that could ensnare more than a dozen other lawmakers. David Welna, NPR News.

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