Ethics Reform Push Comes After Clinton Controversies

The chairman of the Senate Rules Committee is proposing that senators-elect abide by Senate ethics laws rather than wait until they are sworn in, a rule that might have stopped New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton from accepting some gifts as first lady.

She supports the change, a spokesman said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell's measure would make senators subject to Senate rules — including a $50 limit on gifts — as soon as they are certified the election winner. Currently, senators come under the rules only after they are sworn in, some two months later.

Also Thursday, Sen. Clinton agreed to co-sponsor legislation that would change the presidential pardon system, a measure inspired by her husband's actions just before leaving office.

The Clintons were criticized earlier this year when they left the White House with $190,027 worth of furniture and other gifts. It is not known whether any of those gifts arrived in November and December, while she was a senator-elect.

Some of the gifts were returned after questions arose over whether the items were intended as personal gifts or donations to the White House.

A McConnell aide said Thursday that the Kentucky Republican made his proposal without any particular lawmaker in mind. Clinton spokesman Jim Kennedy said she supports the idea.

McConnell quietly signaled his intention to change the rule last week as the Senate began debating campaign finance reform legislation. His spokesman Robert Steurer said it was now unlikely McConnell would push the change as part of the ongoing campaign finance debate, but could seek the change at a later date.

A change in Senate rules requires approval from two-thirds of the members.

"We think it's a great idea," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group that has called for stricter Senate ethics guidelines.

The former first lady also faced criticism for the $8 million memoir deal she signed as a senator-elect. Even if the McConnell provision had been in place, it would not have applied to her book deal because Senate rules exempt royalties from the chamber's ban on outside income.

The pardons bill by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., would require those pressing for presidential pardons and commutations to register as lobbyists. The bill would also require disclosure for those who donate more than $5,000 to presidential libraries.

Clinton's spokesman said she believes Specter's measure is a "common sense disclosure bill" and decided to support it.

Specter's legislation comes after several congressional hearings into President Clinton's last-minute decision to grant a pardon to fugitive financier Marc Rich.

Rich's ex-wife, songwriter and socialite Denise Rich, contributed at least $109,000 to Sen. Clinton's Senate bid. She also gave $450,000 to Bill Clinton's library foundation, prompting critics to question whether there was a money-for-pardons deal.

Sen. Clinton also became embroiled in the pardon controversy when it was revealed that her brother, Hugh, was paid more than $400,000 for lobbying to secure a pardon and a commutation. He later agreed to return the money.