House Republicans, divided over how to control special interest spending, struggled Thursday to save a lobbying overhaul bill. At stake was an election-year promise to do something about scandals that have sullied the reputation of Congress.
"This is the acid test today," said Rep. Fred Flake, R-Ariz., who joined other fiscal conservatives in demanding that the legislation address the issue of earmarks, the pet projects often pushed by lobbyists that work their way into larger bills.
Flake warned that Republican committee chairmen who continue to oppose earmark restraint will find themselves in the minority after the next election.
GOP leaders brought the lobbying bill to the floor Thursday morning but then abruptly pulled it after it became apparent that Republican members of the Appropriations Committee still had objections. The lawmakers were unhappy that the bill would require greater disclosure of earmarks in spending bills but not in other policy and tax legislation.
They resumed debate four hours later, with Republicans acknowledging they still weren't sure they had the votes to pass the bill.
Grievances were aired at a closed two-hour meeting at which House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and other party leaders pledged that the final bill that comes out of House-Senate negotiations will expand the earmark language to cover all bills.
Republicans need unity to pass the legislation because it faces widespread Democratic opposition. Democrats say the package is weak and will do little to end abuses caused by lobbyists' influence. Some Republicans were in accord with that.
"We have a weak bill that people want to make weaker," Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a leading advocate of stronger change, said as he entered the private meeting.
Shays said his own party was "totally clueless when it comes to the issues of reform and ethics."
"Virtually everyone seems to be unhappy with some aspect of this," said Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif. He has overseen the lobbying issue since last January when the House, reacting to the scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, took the initial step of banning members-turned-lobbyists from the House floor and gym.
As Republican leaders huddled to try to salvage the bill, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized their efforts.
"This is a bill they thought they could get away with," Pelosi told a press conference.
"It's a ruse, and I think they thought it was worth a try. But people are seeing through it, and their members are hearing from the public."
The House bill requires lobbyists to file quarterly reports on their activities, up from the current twice-a-year reports; suspends all privately funded travel through the end of the year; requires appropriations, or spending, bills to list earmarks; and takes away the retirement benefits of lawmakers convicted of corruption-related crimes.
The Senate bill, passed last month on a 90-8 vote, goes further in banning gifts and meals from lobbyists. It also requires that lobbyists report on grass-roots lobbying involving the use of phone calls and ads to encourage the public to contact their lawmakers, and extends to two years, up from the current one, the waiting period before a former lawmaker can take a job lobbying Congress.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Lewis, R-Calif., on Wednesday urged the GOP leadership to extend the earmarks provision, which allows points of order against appropriation bills that don't list earmarks, to tax and authorization, or policy, bills.
A reform bill that "does not touch on the 'Bridge to Nowhere' is not really reform," Lewis said. Two proposed bridge projects with a cost of some $450 million, in sparsely populated areas of Alaska, were highlighted as among the more egregious of the 5,000 earmarks valued at $24 billion that made their way into a major highway bill the Congress passed last year.
"This bill does nothing whatsoever to stop the fleecing of the taxpayer by listing earmarks on tax bills," added the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, David Obey of Wisconsin.