WASHINGTON – Faced with a plummeting reputation among voters, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a modest lobby reform bill Wednesday that has been months in the making. The legislation is getting pretty mixed reviews for what it does and doesn't do.
"No, it's not a perfect bill. But we've addressed some pretty difficult issues here," said Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss., summing up the debate.
The 90-8 vote restricts gift giving and makes lobbying activities more open. It also bans meals from lobbyists, but does not prohibit lobbyist-paid travel, a big bone of contention for some following the Jack Abramoff scandal.
Just hours before the vote, a U.S. District judge in Miami sentenced the former lobbyist to five years and 10 months in prison on conspiracy and wire fraud charges. Abramoff is helping federal investigators probing malfeasance in Congress.
Early in the debate, the Senate rejected an amendment by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to extend the gift and meal ban to include people working at companies hiring lobbyists. "We ought to just stop the practice of dining out at the expense of others," he said. But opponents argued that the ban was overly restrictive, and it was defeated 68-30.
Under the Senate bill, lobbyists will be required to reveal more information about their contacts with lawmakers. The bill prolongs the impact of the "revolving door" between lawmakers and lobbyists, mandating that two years must pass from the time a member leaves the body and begins to lobby his former colleagues. That doubles the current length of time a former lawmaker must wait.
The bill does not establish an independent ethics watchdog office to police the activity of members. The would-be "Office of Public Integrity" was pushed by Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona as well as Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Barak Obama of Illinois.
"We're dealing with a reality here that public confidence in Congress is very low, it's perilously low," Collins said in beseeching her colleagues to no avail.
Opponents of the new office said the Senate ethics committee, unlike its paralyzed counterpart in the House, is doing its job. The new office, which under the Collins proposal would still cede ultimate authority on punitive actions to the Senate committee, means "more bureaucracy and a more belabored process," said Senate ethics committee member Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
Nonetheless, Collins said that overall the bill's increased openness would "make a big difference" in enhancing public confidence.
"We cannot tackle the big issues facing our country if the public does not trust us to act in the public interest," said Collins, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Voting against the bill were McCain, Obama, Feingold, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. West Virginia Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Robert Byrd, whose wife died last weekend, were not present.
Both House and Senate leaders have made lobbying and ethics reform a priority this year after the influence-peddling scandal involving Abramoff and the conviction of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., on bribery charges further eroded popular opinion of Congress.
In trying to address some of those concerns raised by Cunningham, the bill shines more light on earmarks. It "requires that all Senate bills or conference reports include a list of all earmarks in the measure; an identification of the member who proposed the earmark, and an explanation of the essential government purpose of the earmark. The bill or conference report, including the list of earmarks, must be available to the Senate and to the general public on the Internet for at least 24 hours before its consideration."
It also allows senators to try to strip out earmarks from any bill that moves on the floor. A measure tucked into a larger bill could be objected to under a "point of order" and it could be removed with the backing of 60 votes. This is the first time ever an earmark could be stripped without striking down a whole bill. However, the House of Representatives would still have to approve this rule after a conference committee report if it is to become law. The House has not yet taken up its own lobbying reform proposals.
"I think all of us would have liked to have been illuminated" as to the practices like those by Cunningham, McCain said. "And we didn't know who was behind it until he was on trial."
The Senate did break the time-honored practice of placing secret "holds" on legislation and nominees. Any member currently can place a secret hold now, but the members voted to require a senator taking advantage of this practice to publish a notice in the Congressional Record within three days. The amendment, proposed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, passed 84-13.
"It's time to force these objections out of the shadows and into the sunshine," Wyden said.
Common Cause President Chellie Pingree expressed disappointment in the Senate vote. "Even as the Justice Department investigates possible corruption of at least half a dozen members of Congress, the Senate today is refusing to acknowledge that Congress — in the eyes of the public — has failed to police itself."
FOX News' Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.