Senate Pushes Ethics Cleanup

Jack Abramoff, foreground, leaves Federal Court in Washington Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006. The once-powerful lobbyist pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud, agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors investigating influence peddling that has threatened powerful members of the U.S. Congress. At right is his attorney Abbe Lowell.
The public would know when a senator has a drink on a lobbyist's tab or quietly inserts a pet project into legislation under a measure that won unanimous approval Tuesday by a Senate committee.

The 17-0 Rules Committee vote was the Senate's first stab at cleaning up the image of lawmakers tarnished two months ago when former lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in a federal corruption investigation involving the use of millions of dollars to influence policy.

The measure, sponsored by committee chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss., emphasizes greater transparency in interactions with lobbyists; lawmakers could still accept food and drinks from a lobbyist but would have to post the value of the meal on their Web sites within 15 days.

Also, privately funded trips would have to be preapproved by the Senate Ethics Committee, and members would have to file a report on events attended during the trip and the names of accompanying lobbyists.

Members catching rides on corporate jets for official trips would have to list the names of all those on the plane, including lobbyists.

The reputation of the Senate is at stake, said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a member of the Rules Committee, in calling for strong lobbying reform measures. Currently, he said, "the used car salesman is about one notch above us."

The Rules Committee vote was the first in what should be a series of actions in the coming weeks to reduce the taint of scandal as legislators face disillusioned voters in an election year.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday takes up a more comprehensive bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.

The full Senate could consider a combination of the two bills as early as next week.