Senate Gives Go-Ahead to Ethics Package Senate Democrats make good on a campaign pledge with the approval of a strict new ethics package. All but two senators approved a bill that would more strictly regulate interactions between lawmakers and lobbyists.
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Senate Gives Go-Ahead to Ethics Package

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Senate Gives Go-Ahead to Ethics Package

Senate Gives Go-Ahead to Ethics Package

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The Senate voted last 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 ratchets 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.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: 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 last night. Here's Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Majority Leader): In the past I've called this legislation the toughest reform since Watergate. 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 when they vote on this, should vote proudly.

OVERBY: Republican leader Mitch McConnell had just as much praise, in a more businesslike fashion.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Minority Leader): I think this was a successful example of good negotiation, although it took a while - good negotiation for a favorable result.

OVERBY: 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 just one, before becoming lobbyists.

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

Senator RUSSELL FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): When you see former members of staff becoming lobbyists and making three or four or 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.

OVERBY: 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.

Here's Reid talking with reporters earlier Thursday. He was reading and endorsing a statement by a watchdog group.

Senator REID: 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 for maintaining the corrupting practices that played a central role in the Abramoff lobbying scandals in Congress.

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

Senator MCCONNELL: 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.

OVERBY: 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. And McConnell needed to make sure it didn't look as if Republicans were killing an ethics bill. He also needed to remind Reid of a basic truth.

Senator MCCONNELL: The minority is not irrelevant in the Senate.

OVERBY: And aside from that point, McConnell forced Reid to allow consideration of a Republican issue that Democrats oppose. It would give the president a watered-down version of the 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 Republican Robert Bennett of Utah.

Senator ROBERT BENNETT (Republican, Utah): We're doing a lot of things here that are in response to the media, and response to special interest groups who call themselves public interest groups.

OVERBY: But like almost everyone else, Bennett voted aye.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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