Thursday, January 18, 2007

The ethics bill before the Senate not only cracks down on lawmakers, but also subjects politically active ministers and neighborhood groups to the same rules as K Street lobbyists.

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. The requirements could apply to a preacher who goes on TV or radio and tells listeners to call their congressman in support of a particular issue, such as a constitutional amendment against homosexual “marriage.”

But late last night, in the session’s first display of the muscle that even a minority party has in the upper chamber, the entire ethics bill was jeopardized when Republicans blocked a procedural vote. Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, had refused to allow a vote on an amendment to give the president authority to strip spending “earmarks” from bills.

Republicans retaliated by voting in near-lockstep against a parliamentary motion needed to vote on the entire bill. The motion won a 51-46 majority, far short of the two-thirds majority needed. No action is now scheduled on the bill, though negotiations between the two parties continued into the night.

The vote capped a day of squabbling over the ethics bill, in which the Senate’s Democratic leaders clashed repeatedly with Republicans on numerous details, starting with the measure to broaden the scope of lobbyist rules. Democratic backers of the measure say it will expose phony grass-roots organizations, sometimes called “astroturf,” that front for monied special interests.

“The problem is these organizations have hired guns paid by undisclosed special interest organizations,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee.

She said the proposal was “bona fide, helpful and overdue.”

But issue groups spanning the political spectrum — from National Right to Life and Focus on the Family to the League of Conservation Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union — say the expanded definition of lobbyist will imperil citizens’ constitutional rights to free speech and to petition the government.

“This bill goes way too far,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. “This gets at the citizen groups who are really the ones making their voices heard about our democracy.”

An identical proposal has been introduced in the House.

The first Senate squabble stemmed from an amendment by Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, that would delete the provision on grass-roots lobbying.

“This should be struck from the bill,” Mr. Bennett said. “I was taught in civics in high school that [contacting Congress members] was what we were supposed to do.”

The grass-roots provision would exempt unions and other organizations that attempt to influence only their members, shareholders and employees. It also would apply only to groups that collect or spend more than $25,000 in three months.

“I gather some groups are upset,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent who supports the bill. “But it is really aimed at attempts to influence Congress by these astroturf groups.”

Mr. Lieberman said the $25,000 threshold would protect real grass-roots activists, an assertion that drew criticism from Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice.

“Some of the big churches spend more than that in a week,” said Mr. Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative constitutional-law group. “We have a constitution that gives us the free exercise of religion, and part of that is being able to address the moral and religious values of the day.”

The late procedural block came over a proposal by Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, to give the president the authority, with the approval of Congress, to eliminate individual spending items in broader-scope legislation.

“The new majority party has been very vocal about … fiscal responsibility and spending restraint,” Mr. Gregg said. “Yet it seems to be dragging its feet when it comes time to put those words into action.”

Democrats refused to allow a vote, saying the amendment was not relevant to the ethics bill. After the Republican-backed procedural vote, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said he hoped that “this is going to be just a bump in the road.”

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