Republican leaders looking to stem lobbyist influence

Published: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 10:55 p.m.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is considering proposals to ban gifts and privately funded travel as part of an effort to curtail the influence of lobbyists on lawmakers, officials said Thursday.
An end to lobbying by lawmakers' spouses and terminating a practice that grants former members of Congress access to the floor of the Senate also are under consideration at a time when Republicans are struggling to escape fallout from a congressional corruption scandal, these officials added.
Current rules impose a $50 limit on individual gifts to senators, although there are numerous exceptions.
Frist, R-Tenn., intends to set aside time for the Senate to consider its own changes early this year, possibly by the end of February, according to officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity since no public announcement has been made.
Democrats are likely to counter with their own recommendations.
The rush to consider changes in ethics-related rules gained momentum rapidly after lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy in a public corruption case. Numerous politicians rushed to shed donations from him and his clients, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was forced to renounce his place in the GOP leadership. DeLay, R-Texas, is under indictment on campaign finance charges in Texas, and denies all wrongdoing.
House Republicans also have under consideration a ban on privately funded travel, according to Rep. David Dreier, the Californian in charge of a GOP effort to produce a package of changes curbing the influence of lobbyists.
Meantime, Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., proposes permanently barring former lawmakers from serving as lobbyists. Currently, members are banned from lobbying for one year.
"Having a starker separation between serving and lobbying is something that I think would contribute to the quality of work we do in Congress," said Kennedy, who is running for the Senate this year.
Abramoff is a lifelong Republican and his lobbying business flourished because of his ties to DeLay and other powerful Republican lawmakers. The GOP, eager to share any political harm, say the unfolding scandal is bipartisan.
But Democrats say it has a strong Republican flavor.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Republicans had created "one of the most closed, corrupt Congresses in history" and urged the House ethics committee to investigate GOP lawmakers linked to Abramoff.
"It's hard for the American people to understand how corrupt it is here," the California Democrat said at a news conference.
In a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Pelosi said Democrats expect the ethics committee to look into the "alleged violations of criminal laws and the rules of the House" by Delay and three other Republicans with ties to Abramoff - Bob Ney of Ohio and Californians Richard Pombo and John Doolittle.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud charges for his influence-peddling activities, but so far no member of Congress has been indicted.
Pelosi's letter did not ask the ethics committee to investigate an unrelated case involving Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana.
A former aide to Jefferson, in pleading guilty to aiding and abetting bribery of a public official, said Jefferson had demanded bribes for promoting business opportunities in Africa, according to court documents filed Wednesday.
Pelosi didn't comment on the Jefferson case, but stressed that "we have said all along that, Democrat or Republican, anyone who doesn't follow the rules or the law has to be held accountable. That's the difference between us."
Hastert's spokesman, Ron Bonjean, said it was "hypocritical for leader Pelosi to throw mud" when a fundraising committee run by Pelosi was fined last year for improperly accepting donations over federal limits.

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