WASHINGTON – People paid to influence legislation could only figuratively wine and dine members of Congress under a bill the Senate is considering to put some distance between lobbyists and lawmakers.
The Senate, by voice vote Wednesday, accepted an amendment to a lobbying and ethics bill that bans all gifts from lobbyists, including meals. The base bill prohibits gifts and say that meals would be permissible only if they are made public.
The vote on meals came shortly after the Senate rejected, on a party line 55-44 vote, a broader Democratic alternative that would also have banned meals as well as almost all privately funded travel.
Meals and travel have been among the more contentious issues as lawmakers try to craft an overhaul of lobbying rules in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and the guilty plea of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., on bribery charges.
Under the pending Senate bill, members would be required to post on their Web sites the value of meals provided to them or their staff within 15 days of receiving them.
But Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who offered the meal ban with Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., said it was better just to eliminate a "tripwire" for activity that might be perceived as unethical.
"In cities and towns all across America it turns out that people pay for their own lunches and their own dinners," said Obama. "People who make far less than we do."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., chairman of the Rules Committee and one of the authors of the base bill along with Dodd, went along with the amendment but warned it could cause unintended problems every time a lawmaker or staff attended a reception where food was available.
"It's totally ludicrous that we are doing this," he said. "I'll be eating with my wife and so will a lot more senators after we pass this one."
The Senate also approved by voice an amendment by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., that would force senators who vote against annual cost-of-living pay raises to turn over those raises to the Treasury to help pay for veterans' health programs.
The Democratic plan, offered by Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, would also have banned all privately funded trips with the exception of those sponsored by tax-exempt charities and educational groups.
The travel provision in the base bill would require lobbyists to disclose itemized expenditures for any travel for public officials that they arrange, and for the first time would hold them liable for any violations.
Lott said the exception for charities and educational groups would open up a new loophole, and that his bill would help eliminate questionable travel by requiring stricter pre-clearance from the Senate ethics committee.
The vote on the Reid amendment was strictly along party lines, but both sides praised the way they were working in a largely bipartisan way to pass the legislation.
"This is not really partisan," Lott said. "It's even bigger than the institution, it's about us and the people we represent and their rights."
Reid said he was disappointed that no Republicans had supported the Democratic approach but "I hope we can still do more to improve this bill."
The Senate bill would also require lobbyists to make quarterly reports, instead of twice a year, of their lobbying activities on Capitol Hill, and require lobbyists to reveal their political contributions and fundraising.
Lawmakers leaving Congress would have to wait two years before accepting jobs lobbying Congress, up from the current one-year moratorium, and a lawmaker's relatives would be barred from lobbying that member.
The bill also sets up a procedure by which lawmakers can try to eliminate from legislation those earmarks, or specific projects, that often are inserted without the knowledge or vote of other members.
With dozens of amendments waiting to be considered, debate on the issue could spill over into next week. The House has yet to come up with a companion bill.