New challenges emerged in the Senate for a sweeping lobbying and ethics overhaul on Tuesday, even as the measure sailed to passage in the House with wide bipartisan support.
Senate Republicans are split on the measure, primarily over earmark disclosure language that conservatives charge Democratic leaders weakened in a closed-door rewrite of the package.
The critics won some new support Tuesday, with Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pledging to oppose the measure on both a procedural vote and final passage when it comes to the floor Thursday, and Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) expected to join him.
Senate Democratic leaders nevertheless predicted victory. “This legislation will pass here in the Senate this week,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters. “It’s 107 pages of change — the most significant change in the history of our country in terms of lobbying and ethics.”
“You saw what happened in the House,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), referring to the 411-8 vote in favor of the bill Tuesday. “I expect a similarly wide margin in the Senate.” Reid also said given the House vote, “people should be a little concerned about voting against it.”
The debate is now playing out against the backdrop of stepped-up scrutiny of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose home was raided by federal agents this week as part of a widening corruption probe.
Conservatives arguing that the ethics bill ignores the central role earmarking plays in corruption scandals pointed to the Stevens probe as fresh evidence. “The real core of the problem — and I mean, Ted Stevens is a friend of mine and I hope none of this stuff is true, obviously — but even in that accusation, at the core of that, is earmarks,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said.
DeMint blocked House and Senate negotiators from going to conference on the bill and has been leading the opposition to the bill Democratic leaders subsequently crafted outside that process.
Because the reform legislation includes changes to Senate rules, Democratic leaders must gather a two-thirds majority of those present and voting on the procedural motion to limit the debate. That means opponents need to muster up to 33 votes to kill it, since Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is still sidelined with health issues.
“I wouldn’t expect that to happen,” one GOP leadership aide said. The Senate in January passed its ethics and lobbying package on a 96-2 vote.
While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is backing the bill, Lott said Republicans are still deciding whether to whip against it. “There are a lot of Members who are not clear about what [the bill] is going to do — as am I,” he said. Of its prospects, he said, “After the exhibition I saw on immigration, I don’t expect to see a lot of strength in dynamic leadership, but we’ll see.”
A primary concern for opponents is that the bill, as rewritten, gives committee chairmen and the Majority Leader the authority to certify whether bills meet the new disclosure rules. Budget hawks want the Senate Parliamentarian to have that power, but Democrats said it would encumber work on big bills.
Conservatives have outlined a number of other areas where they believe earmark transparency rules have been watered down.
The bill’s backers have called the charges either misleading or baseless. They say the rules were modified only to make them more workable and stand mostly unchanged. “This is very much the bill that passed the Senate earlier this year,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) said.
In addition to the earmark changes, the measure requires more frequent and detailed disclosures from lobbyists, imposes a ban on gifts and meals from lobbyists, and severely limits privately funded travel.
It doubles the one-year cooling-off period for Senators who take lobbying jobs. Top Senate staffers would still face a one-year lobbying ban, but the prohibition would be broadened from their former offices to the entire chamber.
And the measure for the first time requires campaign committees to publicly report on lobbyists who bundle political checks for them. Candidates and party committees would have to disclose any lobbyists or firms that gather at least $15,000 for them in a six-month period.
Outside reform advocates including Public Citizen and Democracy 21 have joined Democratic leaders in hailing the package as a major leap forward and are urging Senators to get behind it. The bill represents “landmark reform of the nation’s lobbying disclosure laws and landmark reform of the Senate ethics rules,” the groups wrote in a letter to Senators. “There is absolutely no basis for a Senator to vote against this legislation on process or substance grounds.”
Emily Pierce contributed to this report.