WASHINGTON—The political fallout from the Abramoff lobbying scandal will hinge on whether it's defined as a Republican mess or a bipartisan one in which neither party is to blame because everyone's in bed with lobbyists.
By several measures, Washington's latest money-and-politics affair is a Republican scandal. All five of the people charged or directly implicated so far are Republicans. Jack Abramoff, the central player, is a longtime Republican. And all of his personal campaign contributions went to Republicans.
But write a broader definition of scandal and Democrats get sullied, too. Abramoff's clients gave donations to members of both parties; two-thirds of the cash went to Republicans and one-third went to Democrats.
More broadly, the scandal isn't just about Abramoff but instead about too-cozy ties between lawmakers and lobbyists. Lawmakers from both parties frequently take junkets linked to lobbyists. That's a common—and legal—perk, but one that offends "good government" groups. Republicans take money from big business and write legislation that favors corporations. Democrats take money from labor unions, trial lawyers and environmental groups and write legislation advancing their interests.
The two major political parties are scrambling to define the mushrooming Abramoff scandal on their terms. Though polls show the scandal hasn't yet sunk into the public conscience, political operatives know it will dominate campaign ads by this fall, when voters decide who will control the Congress.
"When you look at this scandal, there's no question both Democrats and Republicans received money. ... We shouldn't be pointing fingers," said Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.
"They're scared. They should be scared," countered Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. "This is a Republican finance scandal."
"The reality is that it is mainly a Republican scandal for several reasons," said Larry Noble, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.
First, the five people directly linked to the scandal so far are Republicans.
The central figure is Abramoff, who once volunteered for Ronald Reagan's campaign, was national chairman of the College Republicans and was once described by Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, as "one of my closest and dearest friends."
The only other person to plead guilty to any charges so far is Michael Scanlon, an Abramoff partner and a former aide to DeLay, the former House Republican leader who's been indicted in Texas on a separate charge of conspiring to evade state campaign finance laws.
A third person has been indicted: David Safavian, a former chief of staff of the General Services Administration in the Bush administration who's accused of making false statements to investigators about his dealings with Abramoff.
And two were implicated in Abramoff's plea bargain: Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, identified as "Representative A," and Tony Rudy, a former top aide to DeLay identified as "Staffer A."
Second, Abramoff made all his personal campaign contributions to fellow Republicans. He contributed about $204,000 over the last three elections, according to Federal Election Commission records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Those contributions were legal—unless it's proved that they were given in exchange for official favors. Nonetheless, President Bush and dozens of other politicians now are giving money they got from Abramoff to charity.
However, Noble and other nonpartisan analysts add, Abramoff's clients contributed to members of both major parties.
"It's mostly a bipartisan scandal," said Alex Knott, an analyst at the Center for Public Integrity, also a nonpartisan research group.
He noted that it touches more Republicans than Democrats for two reasons: Republicans are in power and thus more likely to be lobbied, and Republicans courted closer financial and political ties with lobbyists through their "K Street Project," a concerted GOP effort to press D.C. lobbying firms to hire Republican loyalists if they wanted to be effective on Capitol Hill.
But Knott said most lobbyists and the interests that hire them spend money to influence Democratic lawmakers, too.
Indeed, Democrats are involved when the scandal's definition is expanded to cover all the campaign donations from the casino-rich Indian tribes that hired Abramoff and from the SunCruz Casinos gambling fleet that he bought.
The Abramoff-related gambling interests contributed a total of $4.2 million to candidates for Congress or the presidency since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They gave $2.7 million, or about 64 percent, to Republicans, and the rest to Democrats.
This is why many Republicans are giving back not only Abramoff contributions but also Abramoff-related money; they want to define the scandal broadly to make sure Democrats are roped in, too.
Another measure is junkets.
At least 123 lobbyists sit on the boards of nonprofit groups that sponsor congressional junkets, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Those groups have spent more than $4 million to send 850 members of Congress and their staff members on trips between 2000 and 2004, many of them Democrats.
In fact, the top two recipients of trips in that period were Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and George Miller, D-Calif., the group found.
Ultimately, it will be up to voters to define what's scandal, what's business as usual in Washington, and whether the Republicans or both parties are to blame.