WASHINGTON – The Senate passed an ethics and lobbying reform bill on Thursday as a bipartisan coalition steamrolled dwindling cries to block it by conservative Republicans who complained the bill "gutted" proposed earmark reforms.
The bill, passed 83-14, now completes all congressional action and goes to President Bush for his signature.
The bill aims to disclose lobbyists fundraising activities, eliminate gifts and trips from lobbyists to lawmakers and congressional staff, ban lawmakers from flying corporate jets at cut-rate prices, and increase disclosure of individual pieces of line-item spending known as earmarks.
Enacted in the legislation are other limits including:
-- Expanded "revolving-door rules": Senators and Senate staff must wait two years before accepting a lobbying job; House members and staff still only have to wait one year.
-- Contributions to presidential libraries: Lobbyists must now disclose their donations to presidential libraries, something previously not required.
-- Campaign finance disclosures: Lawmakers would have to include in their campaign finance reports the names of lobbyists who raised $15,000 or more for their campaign during a six-month period.
-- Earmark disclosures: A list of earmarks will be published and available in a database to be made public 48 hours in advance of a vote on the bill; Earmarks added in conference reports could be challenged and stripped from the bill with a 60-vote majority.
Before the vote, White House spokesman Tony Snow criticized the earmark disclosure rule, saying it had been gutted from its previous intent.
"At the beginning of the year, members of the House and Senate all agreed that it would be very important to make all earmarks transparent. In other words, identify an earmark, say who requested it, say what the purpose is and who would benefit from it," he said in his daily briefing to reporters.
"Now all of that is basically gone. As a matter of fact, the language has been considerably weakened. And furthermore, the reporting requirements have been reduced basically to no requirements at all," he said.
Right-leaning groups critical of earmarks and government spending also have dubbed the bill's earmark reforms timid.
"If the leadership now chooses to move forward with this scheme to weaken earmark reforms, that promise will be reduced to complete hypocrisy," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which bills itself as a grassroots group that advocates entrepreneurship and fiscal and regulatory restraint.
Left-leaning government watchdogs, on the other hand, described the measure as a significant improvement over existing ethics and lobbying laws.
"These are big-time fundamental reforms that will end the secrecy surrounding the multiple ways in which Washington lobbyists use money to curry favor and gain access and influence with members of Congress," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. a D..C.-based group that tries to limit the influence of big money on American politics.
Earlier in the day, lawmakers crossed a crucial threshold Thursday when they voted 80-17 to proceed to final passage, overcoming the last hurdle erected by opponents. Democrats said the achievement fulfilled an election-year promise to bring transparency to lawmaker-lobbyist relationships.
During debate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the bill "positive and good" and used unusually harsh language to criticize skeptics of earmark reform.
"How can you describe 'ridiculous,'" Reid said of the bill's critics. "I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone."
Reid said criticism of the bill's earmark language was "so absurd it's hard to believe people could make them without being disingenuous." He said the bill requires full disclosure from each lawmaker of every earmark submitted, a standard that far outstrips anything Republicans required when they ran the Senate.
"Under the Republicans, not one (earmark) was disclosed," Reid thundered. "Not one."
Critics have said the bill falters by designating the majority leader or a Senate committee chairman to decide if disclosure requirements have been met, because that provision creates a massive loophole through which earmarks can be hidden.
Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, called the earmarks reforms "a complete sham," adding that earlier attempts embraced by the Senate to create fool-proof earmark disclosure "has been gutted."
"What we've done is create this sham of disclosure that can be covered up by anyone in this Senate," DeMint said. "That's why I call it a sham."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill "an improvement on the status quo." McConnell said the bill's new ethics rules were "strong," but "the earmarks provision in this bill is not."
Reid defended the provision that appoints himself and committee leaders as arbiters of earmark disclosure, saying it puts the issue before the most knowledgeable legislators. He added that anyone saying that chairmen might hereafter hide earmarks is essentially slandering his colleagues, especially those on the Appropriations Committee, Sens. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and the top-ranked Republican, Thad Cochran of Mississippi.
Calling these legislators liars, Reid said, was "not a very good argument to use in this body. It's kind of an affront to what we do around here."
In another criticism of the bill, McConnell might have given the current field of White House contenders reason for pause: He said new rules would force the president to reimburse the government for any campaign related events, including flights on Air Force One. He said candidates seeking help from the incumbent would be hurt, too.
Flying the president's jumbo jet costs roughly $400,000 an hour, McConnell said.
"That not only means the end of presidential fundraisers outside Washington for Democrats and Republicans. It means the end of presidents doing fundraisers for members outside of D.C. We'd have to have a $5 million fundraiser just to pay for the trip," McConnell said.