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Democrats hope their ethics proposals will win over voters

WASHINGTON—With campaign-style staging, Democrats proposed an ethics reform agenda Wednesday that they hope will persuade the country to put them back in charge of Congress in November's elections.

The Democratic plan resembles the reform agenda unveiled by Republicans the day before, tougher in some parts, more lax in others. Democrats would ban more gifts to lawmakers, for example, but Republicans would ban more junkets.

Both plans would leave unchanged the flow of money to political campaigns, which government reform groups say remains a bigger problem than lavish meals, tickets to luxury skyboxes and junkets.

As if to underscore how some things would remain the same, Democrats later Wednesday used their reform agenda as the key to a new fundraising pitch to supporters, seeking contributions of $35 to $500.

With both parties urging reforms, it was unclear if the Democrats could successfully cast themselves as offering a clear alternative to a country that, as of now, thinks both parties are corrupt.

"You cannot take back congressional majorities if, like the Democrats, you propose solutions that are easily blurred by the majority," said liberal strategist David Sirota.

Party leaders hope otherwise, betting that the public will blame Republicans for the scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist and fellow Republican Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to conspiring to corrupt public officials, among other charges.

"None of us claim that Democrats have a monopoly on virtue," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., one of about 75 Democratic lawmakers who stood side by side onstage in the Library of Congress to announce their program. However, Obama said, the Abramoff scandal and allegations of bribery are "Republican sins and Republican sins alone."

Democrats repeatedly tried to link lobbying excesses to legislation that Republicans favored, such as energy subsidies, and to national problems such as high gasoline prices and the complicated new prescription-drug benefit under Medicare.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Democratic leader in the Senate, likened the Washington scandal to organized crime, noting that his family had once been threatened by organized crime in Nevada.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House Democratic leader, said her party's proposals "will lead this country in a new direction, put an end to business as usual, and make certain this nation's leaders serve the people's interest, not the special interests."

One Democratic proposal would bar lawmakers from inserting special-interest favors or spending into bills late at night when others aren't watching. But it wouldn't end "earmarks," the special appropriations that allow federal spending for a single interest.

Another aimed to ban the "K Street Project," which Republicans set up to force lobbying firms to hire more Republicans, thus cementing ties between Capitol Hill and the Washington street where many lobbyists work.

Democrats also proposed banning lobbyist-financed junkets for members of Congress, though that's already prohibited by existing rules. They didn't propose banning junkets financed by other private interests, such as lobbyists' clients, as Republicans proposed.

Reform groups, including some with ties to Democrats, criticized both parties' proposals as inadequate.

"Why doesn't a single one of these proposals include any oversight or enforcement mechanisms?" asked Melanie Sloan, executive director of a liberal group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Without oversight or enforcement, rule changes are virtually meaningless."

Sloan, who once worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noted that both parties failed to propose limiting the use of appropriations "earmarks" for special interests and that the Democrats didn't propose to strip pensions from lawmakers convicted of crimes related to their official actions, as Republicans did.

Joan Claybrook, president of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen, said Democrats and Republicans stopped short of addressing what she called the real problem in politics, the flow of special-interest money into campaigns. "As such," she said, the two proposals can be characterized only as "reform lite."

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Highlights of the Democratic proposals:

_Ban all gifts for members of Congress and their staffs;

_Double to two years the cooling-off period before former members and staffs can lobby their former offices;

_Ban lobbyists who are former members from the House floor;

_Require lobbyists to disclose more about how they spend money;

_Stop secret late-night deals for special-interest laws;

_Require all conference committees negotiating laws to meet openly;

_End "hire to play" arrangements where lobbyists must hire one party's operatives to get favors.

Key Democratic differences from Republicans:

_Would ban all gifts, not just those worth more than $20;

_Would still allow privately financed junkets;

_Would still allow lobbyists who are former members access to the House gym;

_Would require public scrutiny of conference committee talks, where many deals are cut.

_Would prohibit the "hire to play" deals with lobbyists institutionalized by the Republican "K Street Project."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LOBBYREFORM

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