Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is trying to drive Republicans’ ties to lobbyists and the “K Street Project” to victory in this year’s congressional elections, but Republican lawmakers say he’s taken a wrong turn.
“We don’t have a K Street Project,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and Mr. Reid’s top target. “I have never called anybody or talked to anyone to try to get anybody a position on K Street with one exception, and that is if someone from my office is applying for a job and an employer calls me.”
Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who created the K Street Project in the 1980s as a database of political donations and hirings among lobbying firms and trade associations, said Democrats are confusing the issue and mixing two entirely different things.
Democrats say the project is a scheme to force lobbyists to contribute to and hire Republicans in exchange for access to lawmakers, and Mr. Reid of Nevada said Mr. Santorum was “as responsible as anyone in the world” for it.
He and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), wrote a letter calling for Senate hearings on the matter.
“K Street” is the term politicians use to refer to lobbyists, because of the number of high-profile lobbying firms based there. It has become a dirty word in Washington in recent months as corruption charges and accusations have been lobbed at members of Congress — so many that some candidates in the House leadership election have said they will end the project.
But Mr. Norquist says it will keep running and said his effort — which is viewable online at www.kstreetproject.com — tracks employment and political donations of the top lobbying firms, trade associations and industries.
“My argument to K Street is you should hire people who agree with you on principle. You should not hire for access,” Mr. Norquist said, adding that his project does not include threats to limit access. “There’s no muscle necessary behind that. I’m saying: ‘Play to your self-interest.’”
Mr. Santorum says he doesn’t have anything to do with Mr. Norquist’s database.
Instead, he hosts weekly meetings with lobbyists during which they spend a few minutes each time talking about a Republican National Committee-compiled job-bank list. Last week, Mr. Santorum said he would end that practice.
Those at the meetings said there aren’t any threats about access or what would happen if jobs weren’t filled by Republicans.
“None of the people in the room has the muscle to say something like that,” said Cleta Mitchell, a campaign-finance lawyer who attends the meetings and said most of them are spent talking about communicating the Republican message, and in recent years the main topic has been judicial nominations.
She said Democrats are probably more guilty than Republicans on lobbying and access.
“What they do at their [meetings] is probably what they think we do at ours, but we don’t.”
But Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, said Mr. Santorum’s defense was hollow.
“It’s an indisputable fact that Senator Santorum has become the Senate’s point man on K Street,” he said.
The DSCC has made the attack a major issue in Mr. Santorum’s re-election campaign this year, calling him the “pioneer” of the project.
Their evidence includes published reports that Mr. Santorum was critical of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Boeing for hiring Democrats for top positions. Mr. Santorum acknowledged paying attention to lobbying hirings and, in the case of MPAA, questioned whether it was an “effective” choice to hire Clinton Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman as president.
Also, in 2002, soon after Mr. Norquist spoke about the K Street Project at Mr. Santorum’s weekly meetings, the Senate ethics committee warned all senators against denying access based on party affiliation or contributions.
“The reality is that Senator Santorum is one of the ones making sure lobby firms only hire Republicans,” Mr. Manley said. “I’m glad to see Senator Santorum getting embarrassed by his ties to the K Street Project, but why has it taken him so long for this about-face?”
Mr. Norquist, though, said Democrats should be worried because they have “made a huge, huge mistake” because they are shining a light on people who are hired as lobbyists strictly because of access — something he said Democrats do.
“No corporation supports high taxes, high tariffs, trial-lawyer looting of the economy. So the only reason [top Democrats] get checks from the corporate community is either because they are being shaken down, or they’re paying for access,” he said.