Bill on Lobbying and Ethics Stalls in Senate

The Senate fails to pass a bill that would have revamped the chamber's lobbying and ethics rules.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to another big issue in the Capitol: ethics reform. To great fanfare earlier this month, the House passed a package of changes to its internal ethics code. The changes were intended to separate members from compromising relationships with lobbyists. The measure passed with just one dissenting vote. This week the Senate has been considering a similar bill, but last night it hit a roadblock.

NPR's Peter Overby joins us now to sort this out. Good morning, Peter.

PETER OVERBY: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And explain for us first what kind of changes were in this Senate bill.

OVERBY: Well, this is the bill that was supposed to fix the culture of corruption in Washington, at least on the Senate side. There will be a gift ban - no more gifts from lobbyists, no more free meals from lobbyists, no more senators flying on corporate jets. It was a long list.

MONTAGNE: And this Senate bill was to be co-sponsored by the Democratic leader Harry Reid and the Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

OVERBY: That's right. And to put it in the simplest terms, what happened was that the Republicans, led by McConnell, tried to attach an amendment to the bill that hadn't been part of the earlier negotiations on the bill. And the Democrats considered the amendment unacceptable. The amendment was to give the president a modified line item veto, something that he has always wanted and that the Democrats have always resisted.

MONTAGNE: Right. So it would have been a controversial provision. Why would the Republicans have put it in what was supposed to be something of a feel-good bill about ethics?

OVERBY: A smart strategy maybe? The Democrats…

MONTAGNE: As in maybe they could get it passed finally in this bill?

OVERBY: Or block the bill. The Democrats say that the Republicans never really wanted ethics reform. The Republicans say no. They do want ethics reform. But the Democrats are being hypocritical because if you're going to have true ethics reform, you need to do something to control the little earmarks that get stuck into a bill, and a line-item veto would give the president chance to knock those out.

MONTAGNE: So this proposed amendment brought down the entire bill?

OVERBY: Yeah, it did. Reid and McConnell negotiated into the night, and they thought they had reached a deal. But a deal like that needs the unanimous consent of the Senate. That's the way the Senate works. And one other Senator objected.

MONTAGNE: And that senator was?

OVERBY: Robert Byrd, a Democrat, the longest-serving senator in office now. And he's chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He is a fierce defender of the congressional power of the purse. So one interpretation is Byrd is the one who killed the bill, and the other interpretation is that Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, managed to kill this ethics bill without leaving any fingerprints.

And nobody declares victory or defeat in a situation like this. But you could hear it in their voices last night. Here is Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, the majority leader of the Senate.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): There are a number of alternatives we have as to what we can do on Friday, but I'll talk to my friend from Kentucky and try to work something out. Otherwise, we will advise him what we're going to do.

OVERBY: Now his friend from Kentucky, of course, is Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader. And here's the way McConnell spoke after the vote.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Let me just say about my friend the majority leader, I still hope we can finish this bill. We're not that far away from completion.

MONTAGNE: So there again, Republican leader Mitch McConnell. And Peter, where does that leave ethics reform?

OVERBY: It leaves it in limbo. One alternative here is that Reid and McConnell will reach another deal and the dome moves forward. Another alternative is that the bill quietly dies. If that happens, then what you've got is two sets of ethics rules on Capitol Hill; new, stricter rules for the House, the older rules for the Senate, and no new disclosure for lobbyists, which was one of the main points of this exercise.

And what you've also got is Mitch McConnell in giving Harry Reid a lesson in how the minority in the Senate can run things.

MONTAGNE: Peter, thanks very much.

OVERBY: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Overby.

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