WASHINGTON – The Senate, responding to voter frustration with corruption and special interest influence in Washington, on Thursday overwhelmingly approved far-reaching ethics and lobbying reform legislation.
Under the bill, passed 96-2, senators will give up gifts and free travel from lobbyists, pay more for travel on corporate jets and make themselves more accountable for the pet projects they insert into bills.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who made the bill his first initiative as head of the Senate, called it the "most significant legislation in ethics and lobbying reform we've had in the history of this country."
The Senate did reject the idea of setting up an independent office to investigate the ethical breaches of members. But it said that lobbyists can no longer hire the spouses of members or pay for lavish parties for members at national conventions.
Passage of the bill, expected by an overwhelming majority, comes a day after the measure appeared dead, the victim of a test of will between the two parties.
Republicans were angry they could not get a vote on a proposal giving the president, with congressional approval, more power to kill single spending items in larger bills. So GOP senators voted against a resolution needed to move the bill to final passage.
On Thursday morning, both sides accused the other of killing the bill and betraying the trust of voters who had demanded that Congress clean up its act.
"What this maneuver shows is that the Republican leadership hasn't learned the lessons of the 2006 election," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
"The Democrat leadership does not have to kill this legislation," countered Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "I believe that we owe it to the voters as well as the institution to come to a fair agreement and pass this legislation."
The dispute was over an attempt by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to get a vote on a modified version of a line-item veto. It would allow the president to single out spending items for elimination. Under Gregg's proposal, Congress would have to agree to the items expunged.
Democrats insisted that the proposal was not relevant to the ethics bill and too contentious to be dealt with in a short time. Gregg said it fit in the ethics bill because most of the items removed would be the special projects that have been linked to wasteful and inappropriate spending.
Under the agreement reached Thursday, Gregg will be allowed to offer his proposal as part of the next bill to reach the Senate floor, a proposal to raise the minimum wage while giving small businesses several tax breaks. That will take place on Monday.
The deal had to take in the objections of the Senate's senior member, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who is vehemently opposed to any legislation that might cede the legislative branch's power over the purse to the president.
The ethics and lobbying legislation would:
—Bar lawmakers from accepting gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists.
—Extend from one to two years the time a former member must wait before he can engage in lobbying activities.
—Deny pensions to lawmakers convicted of serious crimes.
—Require more reporting by lobbyists on their activities.
—Require public disclosure of those home-state projects.
—Require senators hitching rides on private jets to pay full charter rates rather than the current practice of paying the far cheaper equivalent of a first class ticket.
—Require reporting by lobbyists who obtain small donations from clients and then "bundle" them into larger contributions to politicians.
—Prevent spouses of sitting members from lobbying.
The Senate, on a 55-43 vote, approved an amendment pushed by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, to strip a provision requiring reporting of "grass-roots" lobbying.
Backers said it would shine light on special interest groups that use "hired guns" to organize mass mailings, phone-ins or e-mail campaigns. Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and conservative groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition, argued that it was a free speech issue, discouraging people or groups from organizing petition drives.
The Senate also defeated, for the second straight year, a proposal to create an Office of Public Integrity to take over some of the investigative duties of the ethics committee. Supporters said the public, in the wake of scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Mark Foley, suspected the ability of lawmakers to police themselves. The vote against the new office was 71-27.
Democrats are determined to show voters they are changing the way Washington works so they made the measure their first order of business after assuming power in the Senate.
The House, on its first day of Democratic control, changed some of the rules concerning gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists. The House is scheduled to take up legislation next month that, like the Senate bill, would change lobbying law and require a House-Senate compromise.