WASHINGTON – Republicans decided long ago their party won't pay a significant price at the polls for the scandal spawned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. It's a proposition likely to be tested anew in the aftermath of Rep. Bob Ney 's agreement to plead guilty to corruption charges.
Within minutes of the disclosure of Ney's signed plea bargain papers on Friday, House Democrats circulated a list meant to suggest guilt by association. It highlighted the names of more than 60 Republican incumbents who have accepted political donations from the six-term lawmaker.
"Americans are ready for a new direction this November because it's time for a Congress that will put the American people's interests ahead of the special interests," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who chairs his party's campaign organization.
Republicans said that as a national strategy, ethics was a non-starter.
"I don't know of any member of Congress who's lost because of something another member did or didn't do," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"We saw how well the corruption message worked for Democrats in California," he said, a reference to a Republican victory earlier in the year in a special election to succeed convicted GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now in prison.
There's evidence to suggest Forti might be right, so far at least.
Beyond attacking Republicans verbally for presiding over a "culture of corruption," Democrats have made little if any effort to exploit the spectacle of once-powerful Republicans confessing crimes.
Officials in both parties said they knew of only one candidate, Zack Space, who has aired a television commercial on the issue of corruption so far in the campaign. He is running in the district Ney has represented since 1994.
That doesn't mean individual lawmakers haven't paid a political price — or may soon.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay resigned earlier in the year. He had close ties to Abramoff, and is under indictment in Texas on campaign finance charges.
Another Republican, Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana is in a difficult re-election race, in part because of his ties to Abramoff and roughly $150,000 in donations he received from the lobbyist and his clients and his associates. Burns has returned the money or donated it to charity.
Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., has long lived under a legal cloud. Two men have been convicted in a probe in which he is involved, his congressional office was searched for evidence and the FBI says it found $90,000 in bribe money in a freezer in his home. The congressman denies wrongdoing.
The political calculation by GOP strategists has been evident for months, and became clear when their drive to enact far-reaching ethics legislation cratered.
Within days of Abramoff's guilty plea, a Capitol competition of sorts broke out as lawmakers in both parties and both houses of Congress scrambled to declare their support for far-reaching ethics legislation. Individual lawmakers rushed to shed themselves of donations from the GOP lobbyists or his clients.
"I wish it hadn't happened because it's not going to help us keep our majority," conceded Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, in the wake of Abramoff's guilty plea.
Within a few months, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill banning senators and staff from receiving meals and gifts from lobbyists.
The Republican-controlled House voted along party lines for a bill that allowed privately funded travel as long as two-thirds of the ethics committee approved it in advance. A Democratic call for tougher measures failed.
Then gridlock gained control.
In a move designed to thwart Democratic chances at the polls, House Republicans had included a provision to crack down on a type of independent political organizations known as 527 committees. Unlike the parties and most groups, they are allowed to raise money in unlimited amounts from donors whose identities may remain secret.
Senate Democrats threatened to filibuster. They were joined by a small group of Senate Republicans, some of them maneuvering for favor among the 527 groups in advance of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Despite a steady stream of convictions — involving two former senior congressional aides, a former Interior Department employee and a one-time aide at the General Services Administration — the drive to enact legislation was doomed.
Now, with lawmakers likely to adjourn in two weeks for the elections, the list of reform measures is not a long one.
The House voted last February to bar former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from the House floor and gym.
At the time, Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., called the changes "the first step toward our reform package."
On Thursday, the House voted to require lawmakers to identify the special projects they slip into legislation. It's a temporary change only, subject to ratification when the new Congress convenes in January.