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Parties Race for the High Ground of Ethics Reform on Capitol Hill

January 15, 2006|Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With the taint of scandal hanging over the capital and threatening Republican candidates in upcoming elections, both parties are in a race to seize the mantle of reform and to win credit from voters for cleaning up government.

Leading Democrats are scheduled to roll out major policy proposals Wednesday aimed at accusing the GOP majority of cultivating a "culture of corruption," while Republican strategists are working behind the scenes to shield their party from the charge -- and even outdo Democrats' call for change.

Last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told a weekly gathering of conservative activists and lobbyists in Washington that reform would be key to the party's playbook for November elections, which will determine who controls Congress.

Among the ideas being considered by GOP strategists: giving maverick Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a possible 2008 presidential contender and onetime rival of President Bush, a central role in convincing the public that Republicans can be trusted to clean up the political system they control. McCain, who has been leading a Senate investigation into the work of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has written proposals to enhance lobbyist disclosures and crack down on special-interest spending.

Democrats, meanwhile, are huddling through the weekend to polish dramatic proposals targeting Republicans' so-called K Street Project, the program developed by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other conservatives to make corporate lobbyists an integral part of the Republican political machine and to increase donations to GOP candidates.

The dueling approaches illustrate each party's belief that the Abramoff scandal could be pivotal in midterm elections.

Republicans hope to prevent any erosion of the governing majority that was decades in the making. Democrats hope to undo Republicans' lock on Washington by emphasizing ethics complaints against the Bush administration and congressional Republicans -- piled atop voter concerns over the Iraq war and the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

The ethics-focused strategy contains perils for both sides.

The GOP's Mehlman, for example, made his remarks last week to the so-called Wednesday Meeting, a gathering of conservative movement leaders, K Street lobbyists and Capitol Hill leaders, many of whom have been associated at least tangentially with Abramoff and DeLay.

That group, headed by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, is soon to be a target of Democrats who seek to focus public attention on Washington's Republican-dominated lobbying system in which Abramoff thrived.

Democrats, for their part, risk calling attention to money that some of their top officials, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, received from Abramoff's clients. Moreover, the issue will test the party's ability to convey a coherent message -- something that has eluded Democrats on the Iraq war and other major issues.

Democrats have been hammering at Republicans' ethics problems for months, pointing to the Abramoff scandal as well as the CIA leak case that involved White House strategist Karl Rove and led to charges against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. Democratic aides have been working for months to draft reform-related legislation.

The new -- and, to some, surprising -- theme expected to emerge this week will be the GOP as the "party of reform." That campaign is expected to include legislation likely to be passed by the Republican-led Congress and embraced by Bush, perhaps as early as his State of the Union address this month.

"You're going to hear from this president and see the Congress consider an agenda of real change and real reform in 2006," Mehlman said in an interview.

The reform-related package gaining momentum among Republican leaders, sponsored by McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in consultation with Mehlman, seeks to curb the kind of pork-barrel spending that has expanded greatly under GOP control and has helped create an explosion in the number of lobbyists who prowl the Capitol seeking to pry loose taxpayer dollars for clients.

One idea pushed by Norquist and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) would tie lawmakers' names to those "earmarks" in the federal budget. Another proposal, under consideration by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), would ban all travel paid for by lobbyists, including those for government agencies and foundations.

Some of the Republican ideas would hurt Democrats. Mehlman wants to limit independent political groups, such as those that poured millions into the campaign against Bush in 2004.

Norquist, an architect of the K Street Project, said the GOP's ideas could be a "shield and a sword," referring to the political benefits of inoculating Republicans from the corruption charge and attempting to point out Democrats' excesses.

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