Friday, January 19, 2007

Senate votes to clean up how it does business

Senate votes to clean up how it does business
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new Democratic-led U.S. Senate resolved a stalemate on Thursday and overwhelmingly passed legislation to toughen its lobbying and ethics rules in an effort to clean up how lawmakers do business.

The bipartisan bill, approved on a 96-2 vote, became the first passed by the Senate since the 110th Congress convened two weeks ago. It would ban gifts from lobbyists, strengthen restrictions on travel and prohibit former lawmakers from lobbying Congress for two years.

The measure would also deny pensions to senators convicted of bribery, publicly identify the sponsors of any special projects slipped into massive spending bills and require disclosure of negotiations by any senator for a job in the private sector.

Democrats won control of Congress from President George W. Bush's Republicans in last November's elections, promising to end "a culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill that involved a number of influence-peddling scandals in recent years.

Senate passage came after Republicans lifted a procedural roadblock. They reached an agreement with Democrats over a proposed amendment to cut wasteful spending.

The measure now goes for needed concurrence to the U.S. House of Representatives, which adopted similar rule changes earlier this month.

"This is the toughest reform bill in the history of this body as it relates to ethics and lobbying," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

"This is a classic example of bipartisanship ... at its best," said Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who sponsored the bill with Reid.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Paul Light of New York University's John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress. "But the real question is will it be enforced."


Republicans had pushed an amendment to the bill to permit a president to single out specific spending or tax provisions in bills approved by Congress, and then ask that lawmakers go back and delete them.

Democrats refused to allow a vote on the proposal as an amendment to the ethics bill, many complaining it amounted to an unlawful presidential encroachment on congressional powers.

But to clear the way for passage of the overall bill, Democrats agreed to give Republicans a vote on it when they consider next week an increase in the minimum wage.

A decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled as unlawful "line-item veto" power for presidents, saying it crossed into congressional authority. Backers contend the proposed provision would comply with the law. Critics disagreed.

The Senate rejected a proposed amendment that would have created an independent Office of Public Integrity to investigate the ethical conduct of members.

The proposal was backed by public watchdog groups, but critics argued such probes should be left to the Senate's Ethics Committee.

The Senate approved an amendment that would prohibit spouses of senators from lobbying Congress -- unless they were a lobbyist at least a year before election of the member or were a lobbyist for at least a year prior to their marriage.

"Democrats are taking down the 'For Sale' sign on the Capitol and putting up a new sign: 'Under New Management,'" said Assistant Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin.