WASHINGTON – The race to enact an ethics reform package and put an end to the corruption highlighted by defamed lobbyist Jack Abramoff continued Tuesday, with GOP leaders unveiling a set of proposed rules that aim to put new limits on lobbyists and lawmakers.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and Rep. David Dreier of California said Tuesday that they hoped to have a package ready for approval in March that would ban lobbyist-paid travel, place further limits on gifts to lawmakers and their staff members and eliminate congressional pensions for anyone convicted of a felony related to their official duties.
Separately, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said Senate Republicans were ready to move forward — at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist — on a revamped version of a bill that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had introduced in December also seeking to address lobbying reform. The Senate measure is different from the House version, and the chambers are not required to share the same rules of operation.
McCain said his plan includes enhanced disclosure of lobbying contacts and spending. It also singles out earmarks, sometimes called "pork barrel" projects, which are in the crosshairs of those targeting unethical behavior among lobbyists.
"My personal preference would be to ban all earmarks," McCain said at a Tuesday news conference. Saying that the most recent defense bill was among the "most obscene that I have ever seen," McCain pointed to one such provision that designated $900,000 for "Memorial Day."
"I said, 'What does that mean? ... It's completely out of control," McCain said.
The House GOP plan would increase from one year to two years the waiting period before former lawmakers and senior staff members could lobby Congress. Hastert also said further travel restrictions are necessary.
"I know that fact-finding trips are important, but private travel has been abused by some," he said.
Abramoff, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to corruption-related charges and is cooperating with Justice Department prosecutors investigating congressional members, showered legislators with campaign donations, expensive meals, travel and box seats for sporting events.
After the announcements, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered sharp criticism of the plan proposed by Hastert and Dreier.
The Republicans' "so-called lobbying reform proposal sticks a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The Republican proposal fails to address the serious ethical abuses resulting from violations of existing rules and laws ... it does nothing to restore an open, democratic process to the floor of Congress and it leaves totally intact the Republican 'K Street Project,'" said Pelosi, D-Calif., referring to what she says is the practice of Republican-directed hiring at Washington lobbying firms in return for preferential treatment on legislation.
Public unveiling of Democratic-sponsored measures was expected Wednesday. House and Senate Democratic leaders were planning a joint lobbying reform proposal that aims to increase reporting by lobbyists and target earmarks, gifts, travel and the so-called "cooling-off period" for lawmakers and staff members who join lobbying firms after leaving Congress. Additionally, Democrats say they want to put an end to what they say is a Republican political patronage system.
On Wednesday, liberal-leaning groups Campaign for America's Future, MoveOn.org Political Action and the Public Campaign Action Fund planned to rally hundreds of protesters outside the office of Washington insider Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and leader of the Wednesday Group, a weekly meeting of conservative activists. The groups say they are trying to put a microscope on "conservative corruption."
At a news conference Tuesday with Santorum, McCain said he expected differences in approaches to reform would be able to be worked out between the House and the Senate and Republicans and Democrats.
"I am confident that if there are differences these diffences will be negotiable so that we can have a common approach in the House and the Senate...We share a common goal," McCain said.
Current congressional rules prohibit lobbyists from paying for travel for members of Congress and their staff, but do not prohibit them from arranging travel. Qualified private sponsors can pay for food, transportation and lodging when lawmakers travel to meetings, speaking engagements or fact-finding events in connection with official duties. Abramoff's clients had contributed to his nonprofit organizations, allowing those groups to sponsor congressional travel.
The newly proposed reforms are being offered in light of Abramoff's vast dealings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Abramoff apparently arranged lavish trips for Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to the Northern Mariana Islands and to Scotland, where he played golf at St. Andrews. DeLay has said he did not know Abramoff paid for the travel and asked the House ethics committee to look into the trips. The panel has taken no action.
DeLay relinquished his House majority leader's seat earlier this month after Abramoff entered his plea. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who was implicated in Abramoff's plea agreement, said Sunday he would step aside temporarily as chairman of the House Administration Committee. That panel controls internal House operations. Both men say they will be vindicated when the probes are completed.
It is not clear what role, if any, the House and Senate ethics committees will play as developments related to Abramoff unfold.
The four lawmakers who lead the House and Senate ethics committees have declined to say whether they would commit to investigate ethical wrongdoing if the Abramoff investigation shows further misconduct among the ranks.
FOX News Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to this report.