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Senate adopts changes in lobbying and ethics rules

WASHINGTON—The Senate, prodded by influence-peddling scandals that have given Congress a black eye, voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to deny senators gifts and meals from lobbyists and to tighten lobbyist reporting requirements.

In a 90-8 vote, senators also restricted, but didn't eliminate, their ability to insert the special-interest provisions, or "earmarks," that find their way into massive spending bills.

Sponsors of the bipartisan legislation praised it for making Senate business more transparent and less susceptible to backroom deals and high-priced wining and dining.

But it has no enforcement mechanism, and its limits on special-interest "earmarks" have a loophole that would exclude millions in targeted spending from its restrictions.

The House of Representatives has yet to act. The Senate could impose several of the provisions, including the ban on gifts and meals, on itself later if the House fails to enact the legislation.

The changes came after two major corruption cases involving lobbyists, contractors and members of Congress. One former lawmaker, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., was sentenced this month to more than eight years in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for favors inserted into Pentagon spending bills.

The Senate vote occurred the same day that disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for his role in the fraudulent purchase of a fleet of casino cruise ships. He awaits sentencing on his guilty plea to corruption charges for influencing legislation on Indian gaming and other matters. He's also cooperating with federal prosecutors investigating official corruption.

"In the past year, Americans have been shocked and some certainly disgusted by revelations of corruption to our system," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "It has shaken public confidence in the Congress and our entire federal government."

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said the legislation was "a much tougher bill than I think anyone could have anticipated when we started this process."

Critics said the bill fell short by keeping enforcement in the hands of the Senate Ethics Committee, a panel that operates largely in secret. The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to create an independent office of public integrity to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers.

"This is nothing to write home about," said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group. "The argument they seemed to make was `trust us.'"

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the legislation should eliminate earmarks, which he said were at the root of the scandals. Critics said the bill still would've allowed Cunningham to funnel money to Pentagon contractors unnoticed.

"The good news is there'll be more indictments and we'll be revisiting this issue, if not this year, then next year," McCain said.

The measure's main provisions:

_All gifts and meals from lobbyists for lawmakers or their staffs would be prohibited. Under existing rules, senators can accept gifts or meals valued up to $50, a threshold that created an eruption of $49.99 luncheon specials at some top Washington restaurants.

_Lawmakers would be prohibited from lobbying Congress for two years after leaving office. The current limit is one year. Senior congressional staffers would be prohibited from such lobbying for one year.

_Lobbyists would have to file quarterly reports identifying their lobbying activity. Current law requires semi-annual reports. They also would have to disclose more information about themselves, including any previous positions in the legislative or executive branches of government.

_No lawmaker's staff could have "official contact" with any lobbyist who's a member of the lawmaker's immediate family. A number of leading lawmakers have had spouses or children working as lobbyists in Washington, including assistant House Republican leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Reid.

_Lawmakers no longer could negotiate their private employment while still in office. They also couldn't influence the hiring practices of lobbying shops by threatening to punish lobbyists legislatively. The provision is designed to banish the "K Street Project," named after lobbying row in Washington, whereby Republicans attempted to inject more Republicans into lobbying firms.

_Some earmarks would have to be made public at least 24 hours before a bill is considered on the Senate floor. Provisions added during House-Senate negotiations that hadn't been voted on earlier by either chamber would be removed if challenged unless 60 senators vote for them.

Still, those restrictions would apply only to spending on "nonfederal" projects, ones for local or state government or other nonfederal administrators, such as a museum or Indian tribe. Critics argued that the Senate should ban earmarks altogether.

"You can wash the outside of the cup all you want," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "If the inside is still unclean you're going to have the same problems. Earmarks are the gateway drug for overspending and fiscal mismanagement."

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

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