Democrats unveil own lobbying measure
Parties jockey for upper hand amid election-year scandal
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congressional Democrats made a sweeping election-year promise Wednesday to clean up Capitol Hill amid an influence-peddling scandal that has spurred Republicans to propose a reform package of their own.
"The intention of our Founding Fathers was for Congress to be a marketplace of ideas," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said. "The Republicans have turned Congress into an auction house, for sale to the highest bidder. You have to pay to play. That's just not right."
Pelosi, a California Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada introduced what they dubbed the "Honest Leadership and Open Government Act," saying it would curtail the influence of lobbyists and big contributors. (Watch where the plans come up short -- 2:09)
They argued that GOP coziness with lobbyists has led to bad laws and a raw deal for the public.
"When a prescription drug bill puts pharmaceutical companies first, senior citizens pay the price for their prescription drugs," Pelosi said. "When an energy bill gives tax breaks to oil companies already making historic and obscene profits, Americans pay the price at the pump and with record bills for their home heating oil."
Wednesday's event was capped by Democratic lawmakers lining up to sign on as supporters of the proposed bill -- a move reminiscent of the Republican Party's "Contract with America," which served as a platform for GOP candidates when they won control of both houses of Congress in 1994.
With congressional elections coming up in November, Democrats have focused on blasting what they call a Republican "culture of corruption." They have stepped up the attacks since lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges January 3.
Abramoff, a longtime associate of top Republican figures, agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in an investigation that knowledgeable sources say could lead to charges against a half-dozen people. (Full story)
"It is self-evident now that the same Republican members of Congress who put America up for sale have neither the ability nor the credibility to lead us in a new direction, and they shouldn't even try," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat. "But the Democratic Party can."
Republicans hit back by noting that several Democrats received contributions from Abramoff's clients, largely Indian tribes with gambling interests.
Some, like Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, have given away money donated by Abramoff-related sources since the scandal broke. Numerous Republicans have done the same.
But Republicans received about two-thirds of the more than $5 million in donations from Abramoff's clients and associates since 1992, according to an analysis by Dwight Morris and Associates, a CNN campaign finance consultant. (View key players in the Abramoff scandal)
Donations made personally by Abramoff in the same period went entirely to Republicans. Abramoff was a Pioneer-level donator to President Bush's re-election campaign, meaning he raised at least $100,000. The White House has given $6,000 of Abramoff's donations to charity.
He also had close ties to GOP figures such as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, onetime Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.
Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, gave up his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee earlier this week after government sources identified him as the unnamed "Representative No. 1" in Abramoff's plea agreement. (Full story)
Like a Republican plan laid out Tuesday, the one advanced by Democrats would stiffen disclosure requirements for lobbyists, ban privately funded trips and extend the "cooling-off period" that prevents lawmakers and senior staff from lobbying their old colleagues from one year to two. (GOP offers plan)
It would bar lobbyists from giving anything to members of Congress, including meals, whereas the GOP proposal would lower an existing $50 limit to $20.
The Democratic plan also calls for an end to the practice of slipping last-second provisions into spending bills during House-Senate conference committees, tighter rules for government contracting and a requirement that appointees to public-safety positions have "proven credentials."
"Brownie certainly wasn't doing a heck of a job for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina," Pelosi said, a reference to words of praise Bush spoke about the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, who resigned after complaints about the administration's response to Katrina.
Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said changes are needed on Capitol Hill. But he said Republicans shouldn't "jump out there and just throw everything on the table, just sort of in a panic."
"Some of it is outrageous," Lott said. "I mean, now we're going to say you can't have a meal for more than 20 bucks. Where you going to -- to McDonalds?"
In a written statement, House Speaker Dennis Hastert's office contended that the Republican-advanced plan is stronger.
"In order to develop a positive agenda, it is important for the Democrats to think positively about how their party can help the American people solve their problems," Hastert's statement said. "Throwing mud and trying to tear down Republicans with the hope of winning in November will not get the Democrats elected."
Other lobbying reforms have also been proposed recently by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.
"I look forward to working with members of both parties and both houses to pass the strongest possible lobbying reform bill," Feingold said Wednesday in a written statement.
And Tuesday, McCain predicted, "We will end up with a bipartisan agreement on this."
Watchdog groups dubious
Representatives of some watchdog groups expressed doubt about whether any of the plans offered so far would be effective.
"A lot of what was going on was already against the rules," Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Boyle said. "There just wasn't any enforcement."
Boyle said the existing congressional ethics committees have been "entirely ineffective."
"In the 18 months since the Abramoff scandal has unfolded, neither the House or Senate ethics committees has taken any action," Boyle said. "The peer-review approach just doesn't work. Basically the ethics committee process in Congress is used as a weapon."
Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook had similar criticisms, calling the existing lobbying system "legalized bribery" and saying the Republican and Democratic ethics proposals are "reform lite."
The left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called on both parties to require more disclosure from lawmakers and their staffs.
The group's executive director, Melanie Sloan, said in a written statement that any meaningful reform must include "changing House rules to allow outsiders to file ethics complaints."
Also missing from both parties' proposals, the group said, are limits on appropriations earmarks, restrictions on the employment of lawmakers' spouses and children, and restrictions on the use of corporate jets.
The group also noted that, unlike the GOP proposal, the Democrats' plan would not strip the pensions from lawmakers convicted of crimes related to their official duties.
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