Senate Gives Go-Ahead to Ethics Package

The Senate voted Thursday night to kill off one of the enduring stereotypes of American politics: the free-lunch-taking, corporate jet-setting member of Congress.

Only two senators opposed a bill that rachets up ethics standards for lobbyists and for senators themselves. It was a dramatic recovery for a bill that had seemed to fall victim to partisan conflict just 24 hours earlier.

When senators make the deal that clears a bill for passage, they deliver the laudatory speeches before the vote is called, since nobody wants to hang around afterwards.

That's what happened Thursday night.

"In the past, I've called this legislation the toughest reform since Watergate," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat. "That is an understatement. This is the toughest reform bill in the history of this body as it relates to ethics and lobbying. So everyone here tonight as they vote on this should vote proudly."

The Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had just as much praise, in a more businesslike fashion.

"I think this was a successful example of good negotiation," he said. "Although it took a while, good negotiation — for a favorable result."

The bill would stop senators from taking gifts from lobbyists and their employers. It would make them pay full charter rates if they want to fly on corporate jets.

Lobbyists would have to disclose their activities in much more detail than they do now.

And senators and top staff who leave Capitol Hill would have to wait two years, instead of one, before becoming lobbyists.

Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, is one of the bill's authors.

"When you see former members or staff becoming lobbyists and making three, four, five times what they made in government service to work on the same issues they worked on here, that raises questions for a lot of people," Feingold said.

The bill moved quickly last night. It was a startling turn-around.

For most of the preceding 24 hours, Democrats had been accusing the Republicans of sabotaging the measure.

Earlier Thursday, meeting with reporters, Reid read aloud — and endorsed — a portion of a statement by a watchdog group:

"Unless Senate Republicans who profess to support ethics and lobbying reform switch their votes, they will be responsible for killing the very reforms they claim to support and maintaining the corrupting practices that played a central role in the Abramoff lobbying scandals in Congress," Reid read.

McConnell played it cooler. He followed Reid to the cameras.

"Even though we're having dueling press conferences at the moment, to which you all are being subjected, we're continuing to talk about it and I hope we'll be able to work it out," he said.

In fact, Reid and McConnell both had a lot at stake.

Reid needed the bill. It was a centerpiece of the Democrats' campaign strategy last fall. Eventually, he got it.

McConnell needed to make sure it didn't look like Republicans were killing an ethics bill, but also wanted to remind Reid of a basic truth.

"The minority is not irrelevant in the Senate," he said.

And aside from that point, McConnell also forced Reid to allow consideration of a Republican issue that Democrats oppose. It would give the president a watered-down version of line-item veto. The only difference is, it will come up next week, on a different bill.

But even after the leaders agreed, not everyone embraced the ethics package. One critic was Sen. Robert Bennett, Republican from Utah.

"We're doing a lot of things here that are in response to the media, and to special interest groups who call themselves public interest groups," he warned.

But like almost everyone else, Bennett voted "aye."

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