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A Snag for Meehan-Emanuel?

The Democratic-led effort in the House to overhaul federal lobbying regulations for the first time in a decade may have hit a speed bump.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), was widely expected to be referred to the House Administration Committee, where Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) promised to give it quick attention.

Instead, consideration of the bill will be split among the Rules, Judiciary and ethics committees.

Emanuel blamed the switch on a desire by the House Republican leadership to scuttle the bill.

“I think that’s a reflection of the leadership’s intention to not deal with the influence of lobbying and special interests in this Congress,” he said. “They know this cuts close to the bone, and this is a reflection of whether they want to get something done or not.”

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said the bill “has been referred to the appropriate committees.”

“We let democracy work its will in the House of Representatives,” he said. “We’ll have to let the committees consider the bill in their due course.”

But that could take a while. The Ethics Committee was effectively paralyzed for months this year in a partisan fight over rules changes. While those rules have been reversed, a stubborn dispute over staffing continues to hamper the committee’s work.

The Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is already laboring under a packed agenda. Before the panel can take up lobbying reform, it must first deal with reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act, a child-kidnapping bill, in addition to measures on immigration and border security, among other things, committee spokesman Jeff Lungren said.

“We are very, very full,” he said, adding it is “highly unlikely at this point” the lobbying reform bill will be taken up any time soon.

The bill’s sponsors, however, remain optimistic, pointing to the long gestation period of the last major reform initiative to successfully wind its way through Congress — campaign finance reform.

Supporters of the lobbying-reform bill highlight the fact that it took several sessions, and several failed attempts, before public pressure built and forced Congress’ hand on campaign finance.

“We believe that the pressure about ethics will continue to build and that Congress will have to take action,” Meehan spokesman Matt Vogel said.

The House Administration Committee’s Ney, facing scrutiny about his ties with embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, would still like to consider the bill, said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the lawmaker. Walsh said Ney would request that the House Parliamentarian refer the bill to his committee.

Ney believes he can claim jurisdiction over the measure because the bill would affect the Clerk of the House, one of the many House operations Ney’s panel oversees.

Ney is also considering sponsoring his own lobbying-reform measure. Walsh said he would start focusing on the issue next week.

Meanwhile, the bill’s sponsors continue to hunt for supporters on both sides of the aisle.

So far, the bill has 72 cosponsors, all Democrats, including a representative cross-section of the caucus. No Republicans have signed on yet, however, and the prospect of GOP support is considered low, given that party leaders have aggressively attacked Emanuel over allegations of ethical missteps of his own.

Perhaps most notable are those Democrats who have not yet lent their support. Two of them are members of the Democratic leadership: House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Democratic Caucus vice chairman.

At his weekly press briefing Tuesday, Hoyer stood by earlier statements that he would prefer the bill to address member misconduct, instead of primarily looking at lobbyists’ activities. “I think that needs to be the focus,” he said.

Asked if he would ultimately support the measure, Hoyer replied, “Ultimately is an awfully long time.”

Still, Emanuel said he is “absolutely confident” that both Hoyer and Clyburn would sign on, and a Democratic aide noted that Hoyer “has said it’s a positive thing to have the bill out there. These issues need to be discussed, and there needs to be a lot of public debate about them.”

Clyburn, meanwhile, is grappling with ethical questions of his own. Abramoff, now under federal investigation for his lobbying activities, reportedly paid or a trip that Clyburn took with Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) to the Northern Mariana Islands in 1997.

Both Members have said they believed the trip was being sponsored by a now-defunct nonprofit group, which would have made the trip acceptable under House rules. But Democratic sources have said the two will likely will face an ethics inquiry anyway.

Clyburn’s spokesman did not return a call for comment.

As Democrats weigh their options, debate in the Caucus and among party strategists will continue to focus on the most effective way to translate perceptions of Republican abuses of power into success at the polls in 2006.

Some argue that focusing on lobbying reform distracts from Democrats’ ability to hammer Republicans on their ties to lobbyists.

“We should be spending 95 percent of our time highlighting Republican abuses, and 5 percent on our solution,” said Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf. “There’s a limited audience and a limited attention span to listen to your message, so we need to focus on the negative message about Republican corruption.”

A senior Democratic aide said Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has argued the bill will give candidates something to point to.

“They can say, ‘This is what I would support but Republican Congressman X would not,’” the aide said.

Erin Billings contributed to this report.

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