WASHINGTON – Democrats on Wednesday launched their plans for lobbying and ethics reform, a day after Republicans in the House and Senate put forth their ideas on how to prevent the behavior embodied by fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff and clean up Congress' public image.
"We will put power back where it belongs: in the hands of all of the American people," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, said at the Democratic unveiling at the Library of Congress.
Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, and others enveloped their plans with long-standing complaints about the Republican-led majority, including themes of political corruption, corporate favoritism and more recent conflicts over Abramoff and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. In a bit of showmanship, Democrats attending the event signed a "Declaration of Honesty" pledge.
"For a long time now, an ethical cloud has hung over the capital. For years, Democrats have called for an end to the Republican culture of corruption," Pelosi said.
"Republicans have been and continue to resist true reform because they all benefit from enabling the culture of corruption. Republicans have allowed this poison tree of corruption to bear the fruit of very bad policy for the American people," she added.
The proposal will include a ban on lobbyist-paid travel and gifts, limits on last-minute spending bill changes, and changes to the so-called "cooling-off period," the time lawmakers and their staff members must wait between serving in their official capacity and lobbying their former colleagues.
Democrats also are calling for increased reporting by lobbyists, changes to the ethical rules specific to the House and Senate and revisions to governent hiring and contracting processes. Pelosi singled out former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown — who was fired after a botched response to Hurricane Katrina — as an example of cronysim that her party hopes to end.
Also among the targets was the so-called "K Street Project," named after the downtown Washington road that houses many of the city's most prominent lobbyists and lawyers. Democrats say Republican leadership directed hiring at major lobby firms in turn for political favors, creating a corrupt atmosphere.
"[Republicans] have worked to develop the K Street Project. What is the K Street Project? It's a program where the lobbyists paid and Republican members of Congress played. 'You pay us, we will draft legislation for you.' And as we all learned, a lot of it was drafted in government buildings, sitting next to legislators," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada.
"This is a culture of corruption. And it hasn't been going for a year or two; it's been going on for a long time," Reid said.
After the event, congressional Republicans criticized the Democrats' choice of venue and pointed to rules that prevent the Library of Congress from being used for political purposes.
"In one swoop, they both signed and violated their own 'honest leadership and open government pledge,'" said House Republican Conference spokesman Sean Spicer.
Through a spokeswoman, Pelosi said the event was allowed because it was an official event to unveil a legislative reform package. Library of Congress spokeswoman Sheryl Cannady said the library "does, occasionally, make available library spaces for legislative business, such as meetings, policy planning conferences and press briefings."
On Wednesday, liberal-leaning groups Campaign for America's Future, MoveOn.org Political Action, and the Public Campaign Action Fund rallied 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."
Many of the areas expected to be covered by the Democrats overlap with GOP plans.
"This is a case where you are going to have to read the fine print to make judgments about the effectiveness of the proposals being announced," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the ethics reform-minded advocacy group Democracy 21.
The Democrats' proposals follow an announcement by Republicans that they are introducing a set of reforms on the first day of House members' return to Capitol Hill on Jan. 31.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and Rep. David Dreier of California said Tuesday that they hoped their package would be 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.
Shortly after Republicans laid out their plans Tuesday, Pelosi released a statement attacking the GOP leaders, and other Democrats focused their efforts on proving a broader link between Republicans and Abramoff.
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.
"Mr. Abramoff and his associates are just the symptom. The disease is right here in the Capitol, with the party of power in Washington," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., the Rules Committee's top Democrat.
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's downfall was sealed earlier this month when he entered guilty pleas to tax evasion and fraud, as well as conspiracy to commit a number of other crimes in connection to alleged bribery of at least one congressman and the bilking of millions of dollars from American Indian tribes. As part of his plea agreement, Abramoff has agreed to aid the Justice Department's investigation.
Among the Justice Department's findings, investigators found that Abramoff showered legislators with campaign donations, expensive meals, travel and box seats for sporting events for political favor.
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.
FOX News Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to this report.