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Lobbyists spending big to shape health care debate

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Sen. Max Baucus will be busy the next few weeks trying to steer a massive health care reform bill through Congress, but he will not be so busy that he won't be able to find time to hit Washington's fundraising party circuit.

Mr. Baucus, a Montana Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, is scheduled to attend a "birthday party" in his honor at a Capitol Hill town house in two weeks. The price of admission is a check for his re-election fund.

The event is one of more than a dozen fundraisers set to be held for members of Congress of both major political parties in the next few weeks, when health care reform will be front and center. Many of the givers likely will be lobbyists and executives who represent health care interests.

Health care lobbying has ballooned this year, surpassing every other industry sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Lobbying — and its allied fundraising for lawmakers — have defied the steep declines experienced elsewhere in the recession-ridden economy.

Among the fund-raising events held just in the past week was a lunch at Johnny's Half Shell restaurant on Capitol Hill for Sen. Jim Risch, Idaho Republican, who will be voting on the health care legislation.

Watchdog groups have long complained that private gatherings where legislators mingle with lobbyists affect the lawmakers' judgment on important policies and regulations that affect lobbyists' corporate clients.

"It's a concern, because it's hard for the public to tell if lawmakers are making decisions based on political beliefs or on the influence and access from campaign contributions by big industry," said Carmen Balber, Washington director for Consumer Watchdog.

Mr. Baucus' office did not respond to questions submitted by phone and e-mail about the fundraiser. According to a copy of the invitation to the Dec. 3 event obtained by The Washington Times, the get-together is scheduled to take place at a property owned by trade groups representing the nation's credit unions.

A person who answered the phone there Thursday declined to comment, as did the campaign aide who was listed as a contact on the solicitation.

The health care industry and its lobbyists have been especially active lately, hosting at least 130 fundraisers this year for members of Congress from both parties who sit on key committees responsible for crafting health care legislation, Consumer Watchdog said.

Ms. Balber also noted that Mr. Baucus had to "give a nod to the perception" of undue industry influence when he agreed earlier this year to stop taking money from health care political action committees during the health care debate. But watchdog groups note that the pledge doesn't appear to extend to health care lobbyists or executives.

Mr. Baucus is hardly the only member of Congress planning or attending fundraisers in the coming weeks, and the health care industry isn't the only powerful lobby frequenting the invitation-only private events.

Also scheduled last week was a beer tasting for Rep. Bart Gordon, Tennessee Democrat, according to invitations obtained by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.

"It goes on night in and night out for members on both sides of the aisle," said Nancy Watzman of the nonpartisan watchdog group. "We see them doing it as they're debating health care and every other kind of legislation."

Some states limit when state lawmakers can raise money — often banning them from soliciting funds when the legislature is in session. But no such restrictions apply to Congress, which is in session for most of the year.

"We've seen states that have moved to restrict their soliciting during legislative sessions, and there's very good reason for that," said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. "They understand the perception of fundraising while laws are being made is not the message you want to send to the public."

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