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Dingell Seeks K St.’s Backing

As the party cements its control on Capitol Hill, one of the most powerful House Democrats is pushing K Street to put its money on the new majority.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) on Tuesday told a group of lobbyists that leaders will be watching corporate political action committee contributions, expecting Democrats’ share to rise.

“Now that we’re in the majority, we feel there’s a reason to pay attention a little more closely,” said a source familiar with Dingell’s operation. “Mr. Dingell was delivering that message [Tuesday] to his friends. We’re just looking for equality.”

Dingell’s panel claims broader jurisdiction over industry than any other committee, overseeing telecommunications, energy and drug companies. As such, his pitch comes as a shot over the bow of the corporate lobbying world, which for years worked in lockstep with Congressional Republicans to advance a business-friendly GOP agenda while helping them retain power.

Dingell spokesman Adam R. Benson said the appeal was well within bounds and should not be compared to the hard-nosed Republican tactics commonly known as the K Street Project.

“Chairman Dingell met with his old friends, some of whom he has known for decades, to share his and the Democratic leadership’s political goals for the 2008 election and to ask his supporters to also share those goals,” Benson said. “That is a very different thing from the K Street Project, and in fact, given the past few years of Republican control, is precisely what he should be saying.”

Longtime supporters of the Michigan Democrat and top fundraisers for the party who attended the Tuesday event agreed that the message was well-received.

“When it was mentioned, there were a lot of heads nodding,” said Tom Jolly, a partner at Jolly/Rissler. “The rationale is, whoever’s in the majority expects that they’re going to get at least 50 percent of the corporate PAC money, regardless of whether they are Democrats or Republicans. They feel that PAC money ought not be at a tilt. Giving more money to the minority just doesn’t make sense.”

Another lobbyist in attendance said it wasn’t the first time he had heard the message from a House Democratic leader. “I’ve talked to people in leadership who have made it very clear they will be looking at independent industries and companies and whether they have changed their giving since we’ve been in the majority.”

And the point is likely to be repeated to other top Democratic lobbyists in coming weeks. The source said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has an extensive network on K Street, will be another coordinator for the push. “They’ve worked together on this before, and this doesn’t end here. This is going to be the message we continue to send, because we got here through a big team effort, and we want to stay.”

A Hoyer spokeswoman declined to comment.

Campaign law experts said Dingell’s warning and others like it are not legal or ethical violations. “So long as the Member does not suggest that a contribution will influence an official act or provide access, a Member may suggest contributions should be directed to Democrats over Republicans without running afoul of the law or House rules,” said Corey Rubin, a lawyer with Kelley Drye.

But, he added, “From a public policy perspective, the more people link politics and money, the harder it’s going to be for Congress to gain back the people’s trust.”

Democrats gained control of Congress in part by stirring public anger at what they termed a Republican culture of corruption on the Hill and promising to clean up the system by breaking the link between lawmakers and lobbyists.

“After throwing the word corruption around quite a bit last election, perhaps the Democrats should take a closer look in the mirror,” said Jessica Boulanger, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Either the Democrats were flat-out lying to the American people on the campaign trail or they’ve become corrupted by their newfound majority status.”

While Democrats in Congress have adopted a number of ethics reforms and plan to move ahead with the first update of lobbying laws in a decade, they have also set an aggressive fundraising schedule to pry campaign money from K Street allies.

The Dingell gathering was not itself a fundraiser, but rather the latest installment of a semi-regular get-together that he has organized for years to catch up with his closest advisers. But the lunchtime crowd of about 50 lobbyists — gathered at the Washington Court Hotel on the Hill — did hear an appeal for support of vulnerable Democrats.

Those in attendance said Dingell circulated the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of “Frontline” members — the 29 most endangered incumbents. He also asked them to turn up for two events he’s helping arrange later this month for Frontline members on his committee: first, Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) at the Hotel George on March 20, then Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) at Bistro Bis on March 28.

Hoyer is set this morning to host an event similar to the Dingell lunch. He is joining Reps. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) for a breakfast to encourage lobbyists to support Frontline candidates.

It is still too early to tell the extent to which corporate political money has shifted toward the Democrats. A recent review by CQ PoliticalMoneyLine found Democrats collected about 45 percent of all industry PAC contributions during the previous election cycle, a less than 1 percent rise from their takeover the previous two-year period. Democrats received 38 percent of telecom industry contributions, 35 percent of health care industry checks and 27 percent of those from the energy industry.

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