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Senate passes ethics reform by 96-2 margin

- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

The Senate last night overwhelmingly passed an ethics bill after breaking a day-long stalemate over a Republican proposal on earmarks that had threatened to kill the legislation.

The vote was 96-2, with the two "no" votes coming from Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

"It's the most significant legislation on ethics and lobbying reform ever passed in the history of the country, and it was hard to get there," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said as he left the Senate chamber after last night's vote. "It was a long day."

The impasse had centered on an amendment by Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, that would authorize the president to remove earmarks -- provisions in a bill to fund specific projects, often used by members of Congress to pay for pet projects in their home districts or states -- and send the legislation back to Congress for a second look and another vote.

Republicans wanted to vote on their amendment as part of the ethics bill, but Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, had been single-handedly blocking a deal.

"This reform bill is threatened by an effort by our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to give the president line-item veto authority," Mr. Byrd said on the Senate floor yesterday. When Republicans didn't get the amendment vote they wanted, they retaliated Wednesday by voting against a parliamentary procedure needed to pass the overall ethics bill, effectively blocking what had been Mr. Reid's first order of business.

But Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, secured the ethics-bill vote last night by conceding to Republican demands for a vote on the Gregg amendment.

"It was a difficult bump," Mr. Reid said. Still, he said he was "proud of this debate. It started bipartisan, and it looks like it will end bipartisan."

The ethics bill that passed last night would bar gifts and free travel from lobbyists, require lawmakers to pay more for travel on corporate jets and increase the publicizing of earmarks. It also restricts lobbying by the spouses of sitting members, increases the time before a former lawmaker can become a lobbyist, requires more disclosure by lobbyists, and denies pensions to lawmakers convicted in the future of serious crimes.

The Republican measure will be voted on Monday as an amendment to the bill to raise the minimum wage. This power to revise spending bills would differ from a line-item veto in that either chamber of Congress could reject it with a simple majority vote. Congress had passed a straight line-item veto in 1996, but the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1998.

Mr. Reid said the episode did not produce winners or losers in the Senate.

"The winners are the American people," he said in announcing the deal, which came an hour before the vote. "They have reason to have faith in their government again."

But Mr. Coburn said he voted against the bill because it failed to bring transparency to Congress and said many of the better provisions will be shed before it becomes law. He said as an example of the bill's shortcomings the large number of restrictions on lobbyists.

"Lobbyists aren't the problem," the Oklahoma Republican said. "Members of Congress are the problem. ... We need transparency."

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he appreciated that Democrats "put politics aside to reach an agreement" on Mr. Gregg's proposal.

"Fiscal responsibility is more than a campaign slogan," Mr. McConnell said when the agreement was announced shortly after 8 p.m. "I trust that my colleagues will stand with the voters and support this commonsense reform."

Mr. Gregg also applauded the deal as "a real victory for the American taxpayer" and called his amendment "an excellent tool against unnecessary spending and I am confident that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will agree."

The two senators who were not present for last night's voting were hospitalized Sen. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat, and 2008 presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican.

The Senate last night also voted 55-43 to adopt a Republican amendment that deleted a provision of the ethics bill that would have expanded the definition of lobbyist to include grass-roots organizers, possibly including ministers and neighborhood groups.

Under the legislation, grass-roots organizations that attempt to "influence the general public" to contact members of Congress would have to register as lobbyists and file financial reports -- or face a $200,000 fine.

Democrats had fought unsuccessfully to keep the provision in the bill.

The Senate also defeated, on a 71-27 vote, an amendment that would have created an independent Office of Public Integrity to take over some of the ethics committee's investigative powers. Supporters said that the scandals involving Republican Rep. Mark Foley and lobbyist Jack Abramoff have killed public trust that lawmakers can police themselves.

Supporters say the proposal to limit earmarking strikes at the core of congressional ethics.

Mr. Byrd has added $2.95 billion in pork-barrel projects for West Virginia to appropriation bills since 1991, according to Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW). Last year, he sent home $239 million in earmark spending, which CAGW calculates to be $131.58 for every West Virginia resident, more than four times the national average of $30.55.

More than 30 public-works projects in West Virginia bear the senator's name, including Robert C. Byrd Highway, Robert C. Byrd Industrial Park, Robert C. Byrd Federal Correctional Institution, Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse and two Robert C. Byrd Federal Buildings.

This article was based in part on wire-service reports.