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Senate Passes Ethics Reform; Measure Moves to White House for Signature

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a package to tighten ethics rules and overhaul lobbying laws, voting 83-14 to pass the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act on Thursday afternoon.

The real test came earlier in the day, when conservative Republican Senators — who said the bill fell short on limiting earmarks — tried to kill it on a procedural vote to end debate.

Since the measure includes changes to Senate rules, it needed to gather the support of two-thirds of those voting to clear that hurdle.

But with Congressional ethics scandals still unfolding, even lawmakers who had expressed objections got behind the bill. It breezed through the procedural vote, 80-17. Three GOP Senators — Wayne Allard (Colo.), Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Jim Bunning (Ky.) — voted against cloture but then voted for the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it “the most significant change in lobbying and ethics in the history of our country.”

The package, which passed the House on Tuesday, now heads to the president for his signature.

The handful of conservative Republican Senators spent the hours leading up to the vote lodging a final protest against what they called the gutting of the bill’s earmark provisions by Democratic leaders.

“This present bill before us is a very nice charade, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime ethics reform advocate, said at a morning press conference.

At the same event, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the bill was “terribly flawed” and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) called it “the height of hypocrisy.”

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who led the conservative charge, added: “We’ve hit bottom when we pretend on an ethics bill.”

Later, they took their fight to the floor. Democratic leaders defended the package as a landmark achievement. They said the changes to the bill’s earmark reforms, designed to make them more workable, did nothing to water them down.

Reid called the conservative critique “so absurd it’s hard to imagine people could make it without being disingenuous.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a co-sponsor of the original Senate measure, has been largely sidelined in recent weeks by the debate between DeMint’s group and Democratic leaders.

He gave the bill a mixed review on the Senate floor. The revolving door provision for staffers is “offensive,” he said, and the bans on gifts and travel are “tricky and vague.” But since the package marked an improvement over current law, he backed it.

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