First The Scandal, Now The Reform

Most everyone on Capitol Hill agrees ethics reform is needed, but there's plenty of heat over how to do it. Republican leaders unveiled their reform plan Tuesday, and were promptly blasted by Democrats, who are to unveil their own proposal Wednesday.

Outlining the GOP plan for the House was Speaker Dennis Hastert, who called for new restrictions on gifts from lobbyists, in response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal that already has claimed two Republican leaders and raised GOP fears about this year's elections.

"As Speaker of this House, I want to make one thing clear: it is not acceptable for anyone to break the rules of the House or the law," said Hastert. "If they have, they should be held to account."

Hastert says the legislation being proposed by House leaders would end the practice of lobbyists footing the bill for representatives' lunches and arranging privately funded "fact-finding" trips to resorts.

Not even the House gym is exempt from the GOP's reform plan: lawmakers-turned-lobbyists would be banned from the gym and from access to the House floor, where they have been known to make deals in hopes of changing votes.

Hastert also said, after an hour-and-a-half conference call with House Republicans on Tuesday, that he did not have unanimity on changes to lobbying rules, in particular a proposal to ban all privately funded travel.

Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., who is running to succeed Tom DeLay as majority leader, put out a statement that "many trips are truly educational, and I believe a complete ban on all private travel would be an overreaction that doesn't get to the root of the problem."

Under current rules, approved interest groups and think tanks can finance travel for speeches, meetings and fact-finding missions. Lobbyists are already banned from paying for such trips.

Members of Congress also can accept only those gifts valued at under $50, with a ceiling of $100 from any one individual in a year.

House GOP leaders say their gift ban would be "significantly stronger" but would not prevent members from accepting a baseball hat or a T-shirt from visiting middle-school students.

Hastert said ethics reform should also include the issue of spending by "527s" tax-exempt partisan groups – such as MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In the last election such groups spent $544 million, according to one estimate, and tended to favor Democrats.

reports that the so-called "culture of corruption" is going to be a huge issue in the 2006 midterm elections.

"They knew that they had to grab this reform mantle or they would be steamrolled by the Democrats on the corruption issue," Borger said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that "for more than a decade, Speaker Hastert and House Republicans have benefited from their systemic culture of corruption at the expense of the American people. Today, the Republicans' so-called lobbying reform proposal sticks a Band-Aid on a gaping wound."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, for his part, said the idea of Republicans reforming themselves "is like asking John Gotti to clean up organized crime."

Nonetheless, there are some partnerships in the Senate between GOP and Democratic lawmakers interested in tackling the ethics reform issue.

At a news conference Tuesday to announce Senate plans for ethics reform, Republicans John McCain and Rick Santorum said they will work with Democrats – including Joe Lieberman and Russ Feingold, who teamed up with McCain previously on campaign finance legislation.

McCain has already weighed in on the matter, with a bill introduced several months ago that would also restrict gifts and travel arranged by lobbyists, extend the time period between when a lawmaker leaves Congress and can accept a job as a lobbyist, and require more detailed disclosure of lobbying activities.

McCain said Tuesday he would also like to do something about "earmarks" – special projects sought by individual members, often with the encouragement of lobbyists – that are inserted in larger pieces of legislation.

Many of these earmarks, "if not criminal, certainly are obscene," McCain said with a reference to former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., who recently pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors.

House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., who is spearheading the lobbying overhaul effort for Hastert, said the goal is to pass legislation by the end of February. He said it would include the forfeiture of congressional pensions for members convicted of a felony related to official duties.

Hastert shrugged off criticism from Democrats that he only responded to the lobbying scandal after the Abramoff controversy brought down two GOP leaders.

DeLay, R-Texas, who had stepped down from his post as majority leader after being indicted on campaign finance charges in Texas, decided against trying to regain his job after the guilty plea of Abramoff, with whom he had long had ties. And Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, another recipient of benefits from Abramoff's clients, has temporarily given up his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee.

"A year ago most people around Congress couldn't tell you who Jack Abramoff was," Hastert said.

Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Reid and three other Democratic senators wrote President Bush a letter asking for an accounting of Abramoff's personal contacts with Bush administration officials and acts that may have been undertaken at his request. "The American people need to be assured that the White House is not for sale," they wrote.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Tuesday that Abramoff did have "a few staff-level meetings" at the Bush White House. McClellan did not say with whom Abramoff met, which interests he was representing or how he got access to the White House.

McClellan says Abramoff also attended two Hanukkah receptions at the White House, and could have met Mr. Bush at a reception, but the president does not know him personally.

Abramoff was one of the GOP's top fundraisers, having brought in at least $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney '04 re-election campaign and earning the honorary title "pioneer."