- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

People paid to influence legislation could only figuratively wine and dine members of Congress under a bill the Senate is considering to put some distance between lobbyists and lawmakers.

The Senate, by voice vote yesterday, accepted an amendment to a lobbying and ethics bill that bans all gifts from lobbyists, including meals. The base bill prohibits gifts and say that meals would be permissible only if they are made public.

The vote on meals came shortly after the Senate rejected, on a party line 55-44 vote a broader Democratic alternative that would also have banned meals as well as almost all privately funded travel.

Meals and travel have been among the more contentious issues as lawmakers try to craft an overhaul of lobbying rules in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and the guilty plea of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, on bribery charges.

Under the pending Senate bill, members would be required to post on their Web sites the value of meals provided to them or their staff within 15 days of receiving them.

But Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, who offered the meal ban with Sens. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, and Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, said it was better just to eliminate a “tripwire” for activity that might be perceived as unethical.

“In cities and towns all across America it turns out that people pay for their own lunches and their own dinners,” said Mr. Obama. “People who make far less than we do.”

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee and one of the authors of the base bill along with Mr. Dodd, went along with the amendment but warned it could cause unintended problems every time a lawmaker or staff attended a reception where food was available.

“It’s totally ludicrous that we are doing this,” he said. “I’ll be eating with my wife and so will a lot more senators after we pass this one.”

The Senate also approved by voice vote an amendment by Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, that would force senators who vote against annual cost-of-living pay raises to turn over those raises to the Treasury to help pay for veterans’ health programs.

The Senate bill would also require lobbyists to make quarterly reports, instead of twice a year, of their lobbying activities on Capitol Hill, and require lobbyists to reveal their political contributions and fundraising.

Lawmakers leaving Congress would have to wait two years before accepting jobs lobbying Congress, up from the current one-year moratorium, and a lawmaker’s relatives would be barred from lobbying that member.

The bill also sets up a procedure by which lawmakers can try to eliminate from legislation those earmarks, or specific projects, that often are inserted without the knowledge or vote of other members.

With dozens of amendments waiting to be considered, debate on the issue could spill over into next week. The House has yet to come up with a companion bill.

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