WASHINGTON — Acknowledging the public's outrage over corruption scandals, the Senate gave final congressional approval Thursday to sweeping new limits and disclosure requirements on lobbying and pet-project spending.
The 83-14 vote came over the objections of Republicans who said the travel restrictions would be problematic and that proposed "earmark" spending revisions had been watered down to the point of being a sham.
The House of Representatives approved the measure 411-8 on Tuesday. With veto-proof levels of support from both chambers, it goes to President Bush for his signature.
Democrats said it fulfilled a promise they'd made to voters upon regaining the majority this year. "It's hard. It's going to change the way we do business here," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said the measure looked weaker than expected.
Republicans said they'd demand additional legislation to tighten spending provisions when Congress returned in September from a monthlong recess. "In some key areas this bill is an improvement over the status quo, but this isn't the bill I would have written," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who voted for it.
Fred Wertheimer, the president of the nonprofit group Democracy 21, which advocates reducing the role of money in politics, called the legislation a "major accomplishment."
"The lobbying disclosure reforms passed today will provide the public for the first time with comprehensive information about the multiple ways in which lobbyists provide campaign funds and other financial support to members of Congress whom they are trying to influence," he said.
The measure bans lawmakers from accepting gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists. It requires lobbyists to file disclosure forms twice as often as before, to a publicly accessible database. It eliminates congressional pensions for lawmakers convicted of corruption-related crimes.
It also promises to curb abuses by lawmakers who tuck money for pet projects — known as "earmarks" — into huge spending, tax or authorization bills. Such earmarks, which sometimes reward lobbyists or lawmakers' relatives, have proliferated in recent years, often with little review or disclosure until after the fact.
The legislation says lawmakers generally must publicize their earmarks 48 hours before votes and that earmarks can't directly benefit lawmakers' financial interests.
Critics charged that loopholes will allow the majority leader and the chairmen of the appropriations committees to bend disclosure requirements with little recourse. They also said anti-patronage provisions might be weak enough to skirt.
"I'm disappointed Republicans feel so weak that they have to vote for a bill they know is a pretense," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who led the opposition. "This bill is actually worse than doing nothing because it preserves business as usual while trying to fool people into thinking that everything has been fixed."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a critic of earmark abuses, was among 14 Republicans who voted against the measure. He charged that the revisions had so many loopholes that they were unlikely to stop lawmakers from slipping favors for donors into law.
"Some good has come from the (lobbyist Jack) Abramoff scandal, and the ethics and lobbying provisions in this bill are sound and overdue," McCain said. "But, in the end, they are meaningless if we don't put an end to a system that opened the door for the criminal activities of (convicted former Reps.) Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney and whoever is next to fall. If we pass this bill without the earmark provisions we agreed to at the beginning of the year, then we've failed the American people, yet again."
Democrats said such Republican complaints were disingenuous, since earmarks had exploded in the decade when Republicans ran Congress — benefiting lawmakers of both parties — and Republicans hadn't made any effort to trim them.
Campaign-finance watchdogs praised the legislation.
"We can only hope that senators who threatened to sink this bill in the name of earmarks will remain as energized on that reform going forward," said Meredith McGehee, the policy director for the Campaign Legal Center. "Certainly there is more to be done, but this was the essential first step in restoring accountability to a growing fraternity of out-of-touch politicians."
Several lawmakers who'd criticized the measure ultimately supported it. They included Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the chamber's senior Republican, who's entangled in an FBI corruption investigation.
The legislation restricts lawmakers' use of corporate aircraft, requiring those who take chartered flights to pay fair-market value. That could be especially costly for senators such as Stevens who represent states distant from Washington.