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Ethics rule on jet rides may not fly

The House voted to ban use of corporate planes at bargain prices. But in the Senate, that may not be the ticket.

January 09, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senators are ready to relinquish lobbyist-paid steak dinners and skybox seats at sports arenas. But giving up the use of corporate jets at bargain prices may be one reform too many for them.

Although a ban on using corporate jets flew through the House last week, it faces strong political headwinds in the Senate, which began debate Monday on its own ethics overhaul.

The legislation, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledged would be the toughest since the Watergate era, is the first order of business in the Senate, which came under Democratic control in part because of congressional scandals.

With the addition of newly elected Democratic senators who campaigned on ethics, reformers hope to win approval of a much tougher measure than the one that stalled last year.

"This past election, I think, sent a strong message that the American people want change," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said at a news conference.

The legislation, expected to pass the Senate, would prohibit senators from accepting gifts or travel from lobbyists. It would double, to two years, the prohibition on former lawmakers lobbying their one-time colleagues. It would force senators to be more open about the controversial practice called earmarking, in which they slip special projects into spending bills without public notice, often at the behest of lobbyists. It might even establish an independent Office of Public Integrity to enforce Senate ethics rules.

Less certain is whether it will require senators to pay the charter rate when they fly on corporate jets, rather than the equivalent first-class commercial fare. More certain is that it will not ban the use of private jets.

The use of corporate jets remains high on the list of most-cherished perks, one that senators are loath to give up, though ethics watchdogs say it gives lobbyists extraordinary access to senators.

From 2001 to 2005, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) spent $165,724 in corporate jet flights at the commercial rate, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks campaign spending. Lott is now Senate assistant minority leader.

Next on the list of current senators was Reid, who spent $69,551.

"Why do you think there's resistance?" Obama said Monday. "Because corporate jets are nice.... They're convenient. They're waiting for you. You don't have to take your shoes off."

Obama endorses the idea of requiring senators to reimburse corporations at the much higher charter rate. So does Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"I have no doubt that the average American would love to fly around the country on very comfortable corporate-owned aircraft and only be charged the cost of a first-class ticket," McCain said in a statement. "It is a pretty good deal we have got going here. We need to face the fact that the time has come to end this congressional perk."

From 2001 to 2005, members of Congress, presidential candidates and party committees used corporate jets more than 2,300 times, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who as Senate Rules Committee chairwoman will play a central role in the debate on ethics legislation, favors "full disclosure" of senators' use of corporate jets, including the names of lobbyists on the flights. "To prohibit their use or make the cost prohibitive would make it very difficult for many members to get to, and around, their states on a timely basis," she said.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said: "Senators, especially from the West or from large states, sometimes have to deal with the need to travel to far-flung destinations in short periods of time and schedules that are subject to change until the last minute." He said Reid was open to "considering new ideas on this issue as the bill progresses on the floor."

The use of corporate jets has figured in scandals that have tarnished the image of Congress. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) flew to Texas for his arraignment on money-laundering charges in 2005 on a corporate jet provided by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. And a few years ago, then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) traveled on a corporate jet provided by a defense contractor linked to the scandal that sent Cunningham to prison for bribery.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), an advocate for ethics overhaul, called senators' use of corporate jets "one of those things that really sticks in the craw" of voters. "It also has a corrupting influence. When a lobbyist is in that plane with you, he or she has all kinds of time to lobby you."

As the Senate considers ethics legislation, the House this week will take up legislation to bolster domestic security, raise the minimum wage, expand stem-cell research and allow for negotiations for lower drug prices -- part of the agenda the Democratic leadership pledged to pass in its first 100 legislative hours.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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