WASHINGTON – Presidential candidates from both parties are urging the Senate to set up an independent office to probe ethical questions involving fellow senators. That could be a tough sell.
There is some "institutional resistance," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a potential candidate who has long championed the notion of an independent office of public integrity that would take over some of the self-policing duties of the Senate ethics committee.
"A lot of members are concerned about the use of an independent commission as a political club to beat them over the head," Obama said at a news conference Monday as debate on ethics legislation opened.
A possible rival in 2008, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is also pressing to amend the ethics bill, the first legislation Democrats are taking up in their new majority role, to include the office of public integrity.
The ethics legislation, based on a bill that stalled in the last Congress, would ban gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists, slow the movement of former senators to lobbying jobs, require lobbyists to provide more information on their activities and oblige senators to be more open about their special projects, or earmarks. The Senate is expected to spend up to two weeks on the legislation.
The House passed a rules package last week with tough bans on receiving gifts and travel from lobbyists and their employers and banning the use of corporate jets.
Obama and McCain argue that, after the lobbying and ethics scandals that contributed to the Republican defeat in the 2006 midterm elections, the Senate must create an independent office to ensure voters it is serious about enforcing its own ethics rules.
But Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a member of the six-senator ethics panel, said the nonpartisan group has done its job, and the new office would simply add another step to the ethics process. He added that the office of public integrity was "in danger of becoming a backboard for political tennis balls" with each side filing partisan charges against the other.
"Our ethics process in the Senate works very well," said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., another ethics committee member. "We have not broken down like the House has."
The House ethics committee, torn by partisan wrangling, was dormant for about 16 months until May of last year. It did carry out an extensive investigation of disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., last fall.
Last year, led by ethics committee members, the Senate rejected a proposal for an office of public integrity by an 11-5 vote in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and then by 67-30 on the Senate floor.
Asked how that result might change this year, Obama pointed to eight Democratic freshmen that also attended the news conference. "We've got a whole bunch of freshmen and I also think the election changed the dynamics," he said.
The independent office proposal that Obama and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., will likely offer as an amendment is identical to the idea being put forward by McCain, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in separate ethics legislation.
It would create an independent congressional agency that would audit financial disclosure and lobbying reports and investigate alleged ethics violations. It could refer cases of possible violations to federal and state authorities. It would report to the House and Senate ethics committees, which would retain the authority to determine violations and penalties against members.
Feingold said they also would push for changes to move the Senate closer to the House, which last week effectively barred lawmakers from traveling by corporate jets. "It is one of these things that really sticks in the craw" of voters, he said. "It also has a corrupting influence."
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his office was working on various measures to expand the gift and travel ban to include companies that hire lobbyists, stop lawmakers from sneaking provisions into legislation at the last minute and strengthening the definition of what constitutes an earmark.
"This is just a start," he said of the bill he and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced on the Senate floor. "We're going to improve this bill."