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House passes watered-down ethics bill

WASHINGTON—In a bid to inoculate themselves from recent scandals, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to require prior approval of lawmakers' privately paid travel, to disclose special-interest provisions in legislation and to force lobbyists to reveal more about their work influencing Congress.

The legislation, approved by only four votes, is far more modest than what Republican leaders initially set out as their "reform" anti-corruption agenda earlier this year. Watchdog groups called for the bill's defeat, saying the legislation would do little to prevent corruption abuses such as those by former top GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.

In the final 217-213 vote, only eight Democrats voted for the bill and 20 Republicans voted against it. A more restrictive Democratic alternative failed, 216-213. The legislation that passed must now be reconciled with a stricter version that the Senate passed in March.

The House of Representatives further complicated upcoming negotiations with the Senate by inserting campaign-finance restrictions that would ban unlimited monetary contributions to independent political groups. Democrats, whose allies tend to be the biggest beneficiaries of such donations, object to the ban. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday that such a restriction should be debated separately.

Republican supporters pleaded for votes for the overall legislation, arguing that it at least is a step in the right direction.

"What is important is what we do to reform this institution and our behavior," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a major critic of special-interest spending provisions. "Could (the bill) go further in certain areas? Sure it could ... but it's a start and it's something positive."

Democrats accused Republicans of orchestrating an election-year stunt to give the appearance of wholesale change.

"This empty shell of a bill is driven by one thing—the majority's cynical calculation that it will not pay a price with voters this November for failing to take meaningful steps to end this culture of corruption," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the second-ranking Democratic leader.

The legislation passed on the same day that a top executive with a Kentucky technology firm, Vernon Jackson of iGate Inc., pleaded guilty to charges that he bribed a congressman. Though the congressman wasn't named, the charges originated with an investigation into Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. A former Jefferson aide has said that the congressman sought bribes to negotiate telecommunications deals in Africa. Jefferson has denied the accusations.

The bill targets the behavior of lawmakers, the work of lobbyists and the special-interest spending provisions known as "earmarks," which have flourished in recent years. It requires that earmarks and the lawmakers who insert them into appropriations bills be identified. Critics would have preferred an outright ban.

The legislation also requires lobbyists to file quarterly rather than semi-annual reports on lobbying activity. Lobbyists also would have to disclose whether they were previously employed by the legislative or executive branches of government.

Under an amendment approved Wednesday, any lobbyist who knowingly offers a congressman a gift in excess of congressional limits would be subject to a fine of up to $50,000.

Lobbyists, lawmakers and congressional staffers also would have to undergo ethics training.

The bill also would eliminate pension benefits for lawmakers convicted of crimes.

The legislation initially contained a temporary prohibition on privately paid travel. But by a voice vote, the House adopted a bipartisan amendment that would require the House ethics committee to sign off on lawmakers' private travel requests.

According to an analysis by the independent watchdog group PoliticalMoney Line, private organizations have spent more than $20 million in the past six years flying members of Congress on domestic and foreign trips. The analysis showed a decline in such travel over the past few months, particularly after revelations that Abramoff arranged for some private travel for members of Congress, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

A bipartisan group of House members, led by the top Democrat and Republican on the ethics committee, argued against a temporary prohibition, saying that such travel often helps lawmakers better understand issues.

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

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