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Senate Moves to Curb Gifts From Lobbyists

May 06, 1994|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Senate, in an election-year effort to refurbish the image of Congress, paved the way Thursday for sweeping reform legislation that would ban most gifts, meals, entertainment and trips paid by lobbyists and other special interests.

By a vote of 59 to 39, senators beat back an amendment by Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) to water down a near-total ban on gifts by allowing lawmakers to accept free meals from lobbyists and gifts totaling less than $150.

The weakening amendment mainly drew support from Republicans and conservative Democrats who claimed that the far-reaching restrictions would be degrading to honest members. But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chief sponsor of the ban, said that drastic measures are needed to correct "a lack of public confidence" in Congress.

Congressional sources said that the Levin-sponsored proposal was the strictest gift-reform measure ever approved by either house and it could severely alter the dining, night life and traveling habits of many lawmakers. Members and their staffs would be barred from accepting almost anything from lobbyists unless they were verifiable longtime friends or relatives acting in an unofficial capacity.

Initially, the Levin bill had contained a $20 limit on meals and other gifts that lawmakers could accept from non-lobbyists. But senators voted, 90 to 3, to drop that exemption on an amendment offered by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.).

The net effect was to place non-lobbyists as well as lobbyists in the same category.

Final action on the gifts issue by the Senate is not expected until next Wednesday. The measure then would go to a joint Senate-House conference committee, which must consider it along with a similar but slightly less restrictive bill passed by the House in March. The House-passed bill generally bars benefits from lobbyists but allows some controversial practices to continue, such as free travel to charity golf tournaments and free meals from lobbyists' clients.

Senate debate focused on the public's perception of Congress, with Levin declaring that "people believe we are simply too cozy with paid lobbyists." Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), a supporter of Levin's bill, urged his colleagues to "deal with that perception out in the country."

Referring to free meals and entertainment provided by lobbyists, Wellstone asked: "Why do we need that."

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said that the benefits furnished by lobbyists and other special interests give them extraordinary access to lawmakers. "Ordinary folks will never be able to spend a weekend on the beach with their congressman," he said.

On the theory that most frowned-upon "wining and dining" takes place in Washington, the measure generally would allow members to accept meals and entertainment from business people or other constituents in their home states, as long as the gifts are not from a registered lobbyist.

And members could accept some trips if the travel were related to official duties and did not include free recreational activities, proponents said. Trip costs would have to be disclosed in detail.

"We have to deal with perceptions--a perception that we are somehow not to be trusted," said Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio).

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