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House approves stronger ethics bill

WASHINGTON – Fighting Republican taunts they are “do-nothing” lawmakers, Democrats in Congress began a rush Tuesday to pass major bills before the fast-approaching August recess, starting with House approval of a lobbying reform bill on a 411-8 vote.

The measure would require lawmakers to make greater disclosure of fundraising help by lobbyists on their behalf and impose new limits on gifts and travel. It would force former senators to wait two years and former House members a year before lobbying Congress in person.

The bill’s key provision would require House and Senate members to disclose lobbyists’ names who raise $15,000 or more for them within a six-month period by “bundling” numerous smaller campaign donations – a practice that has been widely used in the current presidential contest.

Just as House members voted to do so last January, senators would have to disclose that they are seeking funds for a pet spending project, or “earmark,” two days before a Senate vote and also declare that neither they nor immediate family members have a stake in such projects.

The legislation is one of the most significant lobbying reform measures in years, analysts said. It represents congressional reaction to scandals that have damaged Congress, including the imprisonment of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and former Reps. Randall “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., and Bob Ney, R-Ohio.

Democratic leaders said that they hope to give final congressional approval not only to the lobbying bill, but also to far-reaching energy and children’s health care bills before Congress leaves town as early as this weekend.

“This is going to be a banner week for Democrats,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, of Illinois, the chief Democratic whip. Such a comment indicates the intense score-keeping that has consumed parties in Congress as they struggle to gain a political edge.

But GOP members persisted in their criticism, saying that Democrats have accomplished little since taking power in January and have not been as collegial as promised. They said only one major bill, to increase the minimum wage, has become law. Congress has passed, but President Bush has not signed, a measure to adopt the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations.

A contentious mood pervaded Capitol Hill on what is likely Congress’ last week in session until after Labor Day. Schakowsky accused the Senate of obstructionism by blocking a host of Democratic bills approved by the House. Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., criticized Democrats for an “arrogance that has become pervasive” after pledging more transparency and openness.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, handed out charts to reporters showing the GOP got more bills signed into law at this time in 2005 (the first year of the 109th Congress) than Democrats have accomplished this year (the first year of the 110th Congress).

While Democrats defended themselves and blamed Republicans for blocking bills, many recognized that the scant record compiled so far this year could be a problem if their legislative output doesn’t improve over the next months heading into the 2008 election season.

Democrats predicted that they will pass energy and health care legislation for children (generally known as SCHIP, for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program) before the summer recess. The Senate has already approved an energy bill that includes fuel-economy standards for new vehicles, but the House bill at this point has no such provision on mileage standards.

The Senate’s SCHIP bill would cover fewer children than the House version, which would also make major changes in the Medicare program. In each case, a joint Senate-House conference would have to work out differences. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., predicted a vote on the health care bill as early as Thursday.

The bill, written by Democratic leaders, drew support from many who had sought a strengthening of lobbying laws. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy21, a nonprofit group promoting transparency in governmental maneuvering, called the disclosure provisions “big-time fundamental reforms” that would limit the “multiple ways in which Washington lobbyists use money to curry favor and gain access and influence with members of Congress.”

On the House floor, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said, “Our bill mandates unprecedented disclosure of lobbying activities and turns the spotlight on the special interests who have grown too comfortable with their special access. More important, our legislation levels the playing field between the special interests and the voters.”

Yet critics found fault with several provisions, especially one that would allow the majority party’s leaders – and not the Senate parliamentarian as previously proposed – to rule whether the “earmark” disclosure requirements have been satisfied.

“Sen. Reid keeps making it easier and easier to hide wasteful and corrupt earmarks,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., of this change. “This new bill pretends to clean up the culture of corruption while it protects the culture of earmarks.”

The bill would extend a previously adopted House gift ban, including meals and tickets, to senators and their staffs. Lawmakers and their aides could not attend large parties given in their honor at national political conventions.

Senators and candidates for the Senate or White House would have to pay charter rates on trips on private planes while House candidates could not accept such trips. Lobbyists would have to disclose payments to presidential libraries, inaugural committees or organizations named for or controlled by members of Congress.