Sunday, May 21, 2006

Democratic leaders began this year thinking that Republican corruption in Congress would be one of their most lethal campaign weapons, but GOP officials say that firepower has been defused by new accusations of bribery and other abuses against Democrats.

“The Democrats’ attempt to paint this as a one-sided issue has come back to bite them. They have a lot of ethics problems in their own closet,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

The latest scandal emerged from the investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and lawmakers of both parties who purportedly did legislative favors for him and received lavish trips, gifts and campaign contributions in return, as well as the conviction on bribery charges of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican.

It since has widened in the House, where the ethics committee announced last week that it had begun investigating two lawmakers: Reps. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, and Bob Ney, Ohio Republican.

The committee is investigating whether Mr. Ney received benefits and gifts from Abramoff as a result of official actions he took. It also will examine accusations that Mr. Jefferson was given money, stocks and other benefits from a technology company in exchange for helping the firm obtain business in Africa. Both men have denied wrongdoing.

Last night, FBI agents raided the Rayburn House Office Building, where Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Ney have offices, Reuters news agency reported.

The FBI would not say where it had searched, but NBC reported the warrant was for Mr. Jefferson’s office.

Another Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, is the focus of an FBI investigation for his purported role in obtaining millions of dollars in pork-barrel appropriations for his state, a network of groups he set up that benefited from the money and a personal fortune that grew from $565,000 to more than $6.3 million in just four years.

Mr. Mollohan, the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee, was forced to resign that post under pressure from party leaders.

The investigations have dramatically changed the political dynamic on the corruption issue, Republican strategists said.

“I think it makes it very difficult for the Democrats to try to frame a message on this issue without appearing as complete hypocrites,” said Danny Diaz, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

How the corruption issue will play in the midterm elections is not clear. Republicans maintain the Democrats’ credibility on the issue has been badly wounded, if not wiped out, but Democrats say their polls show the issue still works in their favor.

“What the Democrats clearly tried to do at the beginning of the year was to shape this as a purely Republican problem. That effort was completely undercut by what happened to Mollohan and Jefferson,” Republican pollster David Winston said.

“The majority of voters do not identify the corruption story with a single party. They still see it as a problem in both parties,” he said.

A Pew poll in February found that a plurality of 34 percent blamed “both parties equally.” An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in March rated the Democrats slightly better than Republicans on ethics — 25 percent to 19 percent — but nearly 30 percent of respondents said “both about the same.”

However, Alan Secrest, a Democratic campaign adviser and pollster, said the voters are less focused on the corruption scandals and more concerned about “the perception of indifference and incompetence in the administration and its congressional allies.”

“While the corruption issue is an important subtext, it is playing a lesser role in driving the anger we see from many voters. Voters nationally are not necessarily keeping score of individual members’ ethical problems,” he said.

That’s not how House Republican leaders see things. “The Democrats’ ‘culture of corruption’ agenda has been washed away by their own ethics tsunami,” Mr. Bonjean said.

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