WASHINGTON — New restrictions on lobbying and spending on lawmakers' pet projects, aimed at curbing corruption in Congress, cleared the House of Representatives on Tuesday, and Senate leaders said they expected to pass the legislation this week before leaving for their August recess.
Democratic leaders said the sweeping measure made good on their 2006 campaign promise to enact the strongest reforms in decades after scandals that led to the convictions of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
A group of Republican senators who say the measure doesn't sufficiently
reform "earmarks" — money for pet projects that's often tucked into spending bills with little review — had hoped to block its final passage.
But the bipartisan 411-8 House vote and the high-profile FBI search this week of the home of veteran Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in a corruption investigation, led critics to concede that the legislation probably will become law.
Campaign-finance watchdogs said they thought the measure had teeth even if it didn't have every provision they wanted. Meredith McGehee, the policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, called it "historic" and "long overdue."
"None of these bills are perfect," McGehee said. "What you look at is, 'Is it credible earmark reform?' and I think it's clear that, yes, it is."
The measure generally would require lawmakers to identify their earmarks publicly at least two days before a vote, and would create a mechanism to remove eleventh-hour earmarks tucked into House-Senate compromises.
It would ban lobbyists from providing lawmakers with meals, gifts and travel, and would further restrict lawmakers' use of private jets.
Lobbyists would have to file disclosure forms quarterly rather than twice a year. A publicly searchable database would track that information. And lawmakers would have to disclose lobbyists' "bundling," or packaging of campaign contributions from others.
Lawmakers who were convicted of corruption-related felonies — including bribery, perjury and conspiracy — would lose their congressional pensions. A handful of lawmakers from both parties are under investigation in cases that involve their campaign donors or their use of official powers.
Lawmakers or staffers who seek to influence hiring by lobbying firms for partisan purposes could be convicted of crimes punishable by prison time.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called the legislation "a dramatic example of how the Congress elected last November pledging to clean up the culture of corruption is making good on its promise."
But several House Republicans who voted for the measure anyway charged that Democrats, meeting behind closed doors to fashion the final product, had watered down many proposed reforms.
Critics said that some crimes, including tax evasion, weren't specified among those that could cost lawmakers their pensions. They also charged that committee chairmen would retain too much power to decide whether earmarks were being handled appropriately.
A provision that would have prohibited lawmakers from inserting earmarks that benefit them, their relatives or their staffs was changed in a way that critics say adds wiggle room.
"Essential reforms have been thrown overboard," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., said Democrats seemed more interested in checking off agenda items from their "Six for '06" campaign platform to brag about during their month at home than anything else. "This reform is only about a fourth of what was brought to us in that first couple of weeks" after the Democratic takeover, Gingrey said.
Six Democrats and two Republicans voted against it, including Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a defense appropriator and legendary earmarker, and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a critic of the earmarking process who saw the reforms as weak.