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With eye toward elections, GOP leaders propose new lobbying rules

WASHINGTON—Republicans in the House of Representatives proposed lobbying reforms Tuesday, eager to limit political damage from their party's ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff before they endanger their hold on power in this year's congressional elections.

If enacted, the new rules could change some of the ways that Washington does business by making it more difficult, but not impossible, for lobbyists and their clients to get privileged access to lawmakers.

Corporate jets and privately financed junkets would be off limits to members of Congress. So would gifts worth more than $20, including expensive dinners and tickets to sporting events in luxury skyboxes. All are favored venues for lobbying.

House Republican leaders also vowed to consider limiting or abolishing "earmarks," or pork-barrel spending, the special appropriations for favored constituents, groups or interests that lawmakers tuck into laws. The practice has exploded in recent years, attracting ever more lobbyists and feeding the growth of government spending.

New rules, if enacted, could have an impact on this year's elections and help shape the national agenda for the next two years.

The lobbying scandal hasn't yet hurt Republicans politically: Polls suggest that the public so far thinks both parties are corrupt. But Republicans want to make sure that Democrats don't have the field of reform to themselves: Republican leaders rolled out their still-unfinished plan in a hastily called news conference the day before top Democratic lawmakers plan to unveil their ethics plan.

A partial summary of the Democratic plan, obtained by Knight Ridder, includes several of the same provisions as the Republican plan. Two key differences: It didn't include a ban on privately financed travel, but would ban "earmarks."

"I have been deeply disturbed by those who have broken the rules of this House and in some instances have pleaded guilty to breaking the law," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "While the problems we have all been reading about stem from violation of existing rules, I believe that to regain the trust of the American people in this institution, we must go further than prosecuting the bad actors."

Hastert had shown little public interest in reform until Abramoff pleaded guilty to felony charges and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was forced to step down from his leadership post because of his indictment in Texas on charges that he conspired to evade campaign-finance law. DeLay had extensive connections to Abramoff, but hasn't been charged in any Abramoff-related crime.

Hastert sidestepped questions about whether the practices he sought to ban were unethical—if so, why tolerate them before?—or merely politically embarrassing now.

Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Rules Committee and Hastert's choice to steer ethics reforms through the House, said he'd have some proposals ready the day the House resumes business Feb. 1.

But not all proposals are ready, he said. Asked, for example, whether he'd ban lobbyist spouses of former members from the House floor or gym, Drier said he hadn't thought about that.

Both men signaled that approval is far from certain. They noted that they faced skepticism from colleagues during a 90-minute conference call Tuesday. "There is not unanimity," Hastert said.

Senate Republicans also are preparing reforms. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said Tuesday that they might propose banning privately financed travel and pork-barrel "earmarks."

Said McCain: "We've reached a tipping point now where the American people are saying, `Enough.'"

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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GOP PROPOSAL

The House Republican proposal would:

_Ban privately financed travel for House members.

_Ban gifts worth more than $20, down from the current limit of $50.

_Ban former lawmakers who are lobbyists from the House gym and House floor.

_Cancel the pensions of House members who are convicted of felonies related to official duties.

_Double to two years the ban on former members or staffers lobbying their former offices.

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BY THE NUMBERS

Privately financed congressional junkets, 2000-2004:

_Groups with lobbyists on their boards that finance congressional travel: 123.

_Number of trips for members of Congress, their spouses or children: 850.

_Total spent: $4 million.

_Overseas destinations: London, Paris, Rome, Rio de Janeiro, Cayman Islands, Scotland, Spain, Greece.

_Domestic destinations: Las Vegas, New York, Miami, Boca Raton, St. Croix, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico.

Source: The Center for Public Integrity

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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