Senate Headed For New Clash Over Ethics

As Congress returns from its July 4th recess, Democratic leaders are expected to try to jumpstart negotiations on a stalled lobbying reform and ethics package.

And they are expected to run into opposition from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who dealt the Democrats a stinging defeat in the spring with a procedural move that split the Democratic caucus.

DeMint backs one of the key reforms the Democrats have promised -- a requirement that members disclose which earmarks they seek and certify that they have no financial interest linked to them.

In fact, he backs it so strongly that he is insisting that the House have no opportunity to alter it in conference, a demand the Democratic leadership calls a smokescreen for an attempt to derail the entire ethics reform project.

The potential impasse could delay action further and threaten passage of one of the Democrats' most important campaign promises.

Behind the scenes, it’s clear many senators are unhappy with a separate proposed requirement that lobbyists disclose how much money they bundle in campaign donations for incumbents and candidates.

Some lobbyists privately warn that they may limit their fundraising roles under such scrutiny.

Given the Abramoff scandal, publicly opposing those new bundling rules could prompt a costly political backlash for any senator.

So “it’s a pretty good bet there are members on both sides of the aisle who are thrilled” at DeMint’s decision to block creation of a conference committee to hammer out final language for the reform, said Meredith McGehee, an official at the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan group pushing for lobbying reform.

DeMint says he supports the lobbying reform provisions in the package. But he isn’t likely to budge until he gets a promise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that the new Senate rules on earmarks won’t be watered down or deleted from the final bill.

The earmark provision is a change in Senate rules, which DeMint argues shouldn’t be part of any conference committee with the House.

“The House has no reason to tinker with Senate rules,” said Wesley Denton, DeMint's spokesman. “The only reason to want to put them in conference is because they intend to change them.”

Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, calls those assertions “phony as a two-dollar bill.”

In a Senate floor exchange before the recess, Reid said he wasn’t willing to cut a deal with DeMint on the earmark provision because it could open the door to renewed debate or side deals on dozens of other individual sections of the bill.

“It’s time we go to conference and work this out,” he said. “We’re not going to piecemeal this out here on the floor.”

Manley said Reid will renew his motion to create a conference committee soon after Congress returns.

Reform advocates plan to turn up the heat on Congress by shedding light on the stalemate in national and home state newspapers of key senators.

“We have to be worried because time passing is an enemy of strong reform. There is tremendous internal resistance to this stuff,” said McGehee. “The only way we win is if we can keep this out in the public view.”

Among the issues that need to be hammered out between the House and Senate are whether to maintain a Senate provision extending a one-year "revolving door" ban on former members from lobbying the old colleagues to two years, and a House requirement that lobbyists first report their bundling totals to the affected member before making them public.

The House measure also extends the “revolving door” ban to staff, which the Senate does not.

While attention is focused on pushing the lobbying reform package over the finish line, a House task force looking into creation of a special office to vet ethics complaints has yet tput forward any firm recommendations.

Activists say the lobbying reform is the highest priority, but that the proposed ethics office is next on the agenda.

“Our first focus is to get the lobbying reform legislation done,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign fundraising and ethics. “We will press hard then on getting ethics enforcement addressed in an effective and credible way.”
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