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Rush To Return Lobbyist Funds

Politicians have been rushing to separate themselves from campaign contributions they took from disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Indian tribes he represented — either by returning them or donating them to charity.

In just the two days since Abramoff pleaded guilty Tuesday in Washington to three federal felonies, more than 40 elected federal officials have given up Abramoff donations, joining a dozen who did so last year.

This week's list was headed by President Bush and most of the Republican leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, House Majority Leader Roy Blunt and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who has legal problems of his own. But some Democrats joined in, including Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

"This is called get out in front of a problem instead of letting it define you," Amy Walter, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, told CBS News' The Early Show.

"It's a classic political deal. You have to make sure, one person said to me, that instead of being on the train tracks you get on the train," said Walter.

Republicans dominated the list — not surprising given that Abramoff, a friend of DeLay's, gave far more to them than to Democrats.

Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich told CBS News' Bob Schieffer that the Abramoff scandal is the latest signal of how unhealthy and dysfunctional the

"Things were being done that are indefensible and where members and staff were engaged in things that I think you are going to find were clear and absolute violations of House rules," Gingrich said.

Gingrich also said it was time for DeLay, who has temporarily relinquished his leadership post, to step aside permanently.

"I think the House Republican Party has to have an election for a new majority leader at the end of this month or the beginning of February. I don't see how with all the various allegations it can be possible for them to cleared up in the short run. With no disrespect to Tom DeLay, who should be presumed innocent, that is his right as an American, I think that as a practical matter he can't both go through all of this process and be an effective leader of the House party."

Gingrich said there were "a number of very fine people who could run, any of whom could spend full time being a majority leader without being involved in long sessions with defense lawyers."

The scandal's effect on the 2006 election was on the mind of many who jettisoned the donations.

"I wish it hadn't happened because it's not going to help us keep our majority," conceded Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio.

As Abramoff pleaded guilty to a second set of felony charges Wednesday, this time in Florida, officials said Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign intended to give up $6,000 in donations from the lobbyist, his wife and a client.

Read the government's plea agreements with Jack Abramoff:

Washington plea agreement (.pdf)
Florida plea agreement (.pdf).

A spokeswoman for Blunt, Burson Taylor, said, "While we firmly believe the contributions were legal at the time of receipt, the plea indicates that such contributions may not have been given in the spirit in which they were received."

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, under federal investigation over his links to Abramoff, joined in the rush.

The Republican scramble to shed cash that once was eagerly sought underscored the potential political problem the party faces in this election year.

Regula, who came to Congress in 1973 and survived post-Watergate elections that crippled his party, said the implications of the Abramoff plea deals could be devastating for the GOP. "I was in the minority for 22 years and the majority for 11, and having tried it both ways, I definitely prefer the majority."

Frist issued a statement placing ethics issues on the Senate agenda for the year. He said he intends to "examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying."

For their part, House Democrats signaled they intend to make ethics an element in their drive to gain a majority in next fall's elections.

"It's more important for these Republicans to come clean with the American people about ... what (they) did for Jack Abramoff and his special interest friends in return for those campaign contributions," said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the House Democratic campaign organization.