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Ethics Bill Will Return to Floor

Leaders Scrap Conference

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have decided to abandon the normal conference committee process for long-stalled ethics legislation and will employ a little-used parliamentary tactic to push the legislation through Congress, Democratic and Republican aides close to the issue said Wednesday.

Spokesmen for Reid and Pelosi declined to comment for this story. But a House Democratic leadership aide said leadership discussions this week have produced a tentative plan for the House and Senate to vote on identical language with no amendments attached in order to circumvent the conference process and get the bill to President Bush’s desk.

According to one Democratic aide, Reid and Pelosi hope to wrap up negotiations on the final version of the bill’s language within the next couple of weeks. “The goal is to have it completed before the August recess,” the aide said.

The decision by the top two Congressional Democrats comes as negotiations between Reid and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to move the bill to conference have gone nowhere. DeMint has demanded that Reid agree to put in place a set of sweeping new earmark reform rules that were included in the bill — even though they only affect the Senate and do not require either House approval or a presidential signature under normal circumstances.

Although Reid has refused to explain why he will not simply agree to bring the new Senate rules into effect, aides and lawmakers for weeks have speculated that either he hopes to change them during conference or to use them as a bargaining chip with Senate negotiators during the talks.

Additionally, Democrats and Republicans alike privately said Reid’s frustration with the upstart DeMint — who has also become a thorn in the side of his own leadership — appears to have contributed to Reid’s decision to move forward with the bill.

Under normal circumstances, the two chambers would appoint Members to a conference committee where differences would be hashed out, and the two chambers would then vote on an unamendable conference report.

But under the process Reid and Pelosi now intend to follow, once a deal is struck Democrats will bring the new version of the bill back to the House floor, almost certainly using a rule to sharply limit amendments. Once on the floor, Pelosi could easily force the measure through relatively quickly and send the new version to the Senate.

Reid would then have to “fill the tree” of amendments to block any effort to change the bill. Given the high profile of the ethics issue, supporters would gamble that any filibuster could be overcome.

But according to Republican aides, DeMint and other conservatives who have been pushing ethics and earmark reforms in the Senate will likely be in no mood to simply accept a new bill, particularly if they feel any of the provisions have been changed or watered down. “If it’s watered down, I can tell you we’ll have 15 amendments of our own we’ll want to propose,” said one Republican aide.

“The Democrats are getting very good and making sport of manipulating the rules,” said DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton. “But at least now we will get to see their bill and find out how Senator Reid plans to gut the earmark reform rules. And Senator DeMint will have a chance to restore them on the Senate floor.”

A showdown with Reid could become particularly complicated for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). DeMint and other conservatives will look to him to publicly back their demands for amendments, Republicans said — including any eventual effort to filibuster the bill.

Eliminating conference proceedings “is really going nuclear, and it should be a party-line vote,” the Republican aide warned, adding that Reid is “running this place like the House. … He’s doing his job, but it’s our leader’s job to protect our rights.”

A spokesman for McConnell said Democrats have yet to provide them with details of how they are proceeding and that it is still too soon to tell how McConnell will handle the situation. “We’re not entirely sure what the Democrats are doing. But we’d prefer regular order, and know that there have been efforts to resolve the hurdles to the bill. But it’s [McConnell’s] preference to get the bill to conference and complete the bill through the normal process,” Don Stewart said.

The legislation is one of the Democrats’ seminal campaign promises, and leaders in both chambers are eager to pass the bill before the month-long August recess. At this point, leaders have dropped attempts to have a uniform “revolving door” regulation for Congressional staff. Since the reform alters chamber rules and not legal statutes, the Senate will implement a two-year ban on lobbying by former staffers, but the House will stick to a one-year ban because of tepid support for extending it.

A Democratic lawmaker familiar with the negotiations said the main provision that must be resolved is language by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) that would impose new disclosure requirements on lobbyists who bundle campaign donations. “That’s probably the last hurdle,” the lawmaker said.

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