Facing significant internal strife, House Democratic leaders are mulling whether to postpone a Thursday vote on overhauling lobbying laws, despite promises of action by Memorial Day.
Deep and wide resistance to the reform package from within the Democratic Caucus threatens to sink the rule governing debate on the measure. Punting, on the other hand, would prompt an outcry from outside reform advocates and could further sap flagging momentum behind the effort.
Leaders last week hoped to quell unrest by stripping a requirement that would have sidelined Congressional operatives for two years before allowing them back on Capitol Hill to lobby their former colleagues.
But a bundling disclosure measure that could get added to the bill, and other provisions already included, continue to cause heartburn for a significant portion of the caucus, lawmakers and aides said.
So far, it is unclear precisely how many Democrats are prepared to buck their leadership on the procedural vote, but with most Republicans expected to line up against it, the majority party has little room for error.
Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), whose panel is set to craft the rule today, said she is recommending leaders push back floor votes on the measure. “I don’t know what the rush is anyway,” she said, noting rules changes House Democrats adopted at the beginning of the year are a significant step toward reform. “I could live with what we passed in January … and it’s going to be very difficult to pass the rule.”
A Democratic House aide confirmed leadership discussions about whether to postpone votes on the reform package until after the upcoming weeklong break. The aide said a fluid situation made it difficult to determine exactly when, if at all, leaders would pull the plug on action this week.
House Democrats already are playing defense on the ethics front this week. Republicans have charged Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) with violating House rules for threatening another lawmaker’s earmarks. A GOP motion to reprimand him was tabled Tuesday evening on a largely party-line vote.
So far, most of the resistance to the reform bill appears to be coming from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Blue Dog Coalition. Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a Blue Dog co-chairmen, said he objects to the premise of lobbying reform as a response to scandals in which people broke laws already on the books.
“The people who did those things are either in jail or on their way,” he said. “The only way we’re going to restore the public’s trust is by acting like our mommies and daddies taught us to act.”
Boyd said objections to the measure aren’t contained to a couple of corners of the caucus. Instead, he said, Members from different backgrounds who share long histories of honest service under existing rules are raising hackles. To say leaders have their work cut for them, he said, “would be an understatement.”
Others on and off the Hill are turning up the volume on their calls for swift action, arguing the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The party needs to “bend over backwards” to fulfill its campaign pledge to end the “culture of corruption,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). “You’re not going to get a perfect bill, but you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Outside reform groups said they are ready to ring the alarm if lawmakers leave town without wrapping work on the package. “If this gets dragged past Memorial Day, we’re in a world of hurt,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.
She framed a stark choice for House Democrats. “My question to them if they’re unhappy with the current bill is, ‘Do you think you’ll be happier in the minority?’”
Reform advocates have grabbed the attention of major editorial pages, with The Washington Post and USA Today already weighing in this week urging support for a strong bill. And Democrats could start feeling the heat from their base. The liberal grass-roots group MoveOn.org on Monday circulated a petition to its membership that warned “key House Democrats are backing away from the strongest reforms.”
“What’s really outrageous is that the Democrats defending the status quo are claiming voters don’t care about taking on corrupt corporate lobbying,” it read.
Aware that the lobbying reform effort is in real danger of defeat, reform groups spent Tuesday in the unusual exercise of hunting for Republicans willing to cross over and help pass the rule. So far, at least, many obvious GOP targets are keeping their options open.
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), an outspoken critic of his own party’s shortfalls in their reform efforts last year, said he is reserving judgment until he sees the bill in its final form. “It’s like a chameleon, and I don’t know what color it’s going to be,” he said.
Likewise, aides said Republican Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Mike Castle (Del.), leading reform advocates in their party, will wait to see what amendments are allowed before deciding whether to help the bill clear the procedural hurdle.
Rules is expecting upwards of 70 proposed changes to the bill. One likely from freshman Democrats, who are among the strongest reform backers in the Caucus, would replace the ethics committee with an outside commission. Castle is offering a similar proposal.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan task force examining whether to overhaul the ethics enforcement process is nearing a consensus and could make an announcement sketching out its recommendations this week, according to its chairman, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.).
The panel was slated to deliver its findings before the recess, but Capuano said “the clock is not the driving force.”
“We’re in good shape,” he said. “No one is fully happy, and everybody’s is satisfied that we’re moving in the right direction.”