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Angry Republicans in Senate block strict new ethics rules

January 18, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats' goal of passing strict new ethics rules as their first order of business as the majority party was stymied, perhaps only temporarily, by a partisan dispute on Wednesday.

The flap came just weeks after leaders of both parties pledged to start the new session with a new spirit of bipartisanship.

An effort to move toward approval of the bill was blocked by Republican senators angry with Democrats for refusing to allow a vote on a GOP amendment, a modified version of the line-item veto. Sixty-five votes were needed to advance the legislation, and the vote was 51 to 46.

"It's a terribly unfortunate day for this body," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who planned to bring the measure up again today.

Democrats, who seized a narrow majority in the Senate, as well as the House, after campaigning in the November elections on the "culture of corruption" when Congress was controlled by the Republicans, had promised to start off with an effort to break the links between lawmakers and lobbyists.

The legislation would have barred lawmakers from accepting gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists, made it more difficult for former lawmakers to lobby their old colleagues, denied pensions to lawmakers convicted of serious crimes, required more reporting by lobbyists on their activities and required disclosure of the pet projects lawmakers insert into legislation.

"I hope this is going to be just a bump in the road," said the Democratic whip, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, expressing optimism that the legislation would ultimately pass.

Before the vote that deadlocked the bill, the Senate voted 88 to 9 to approve a Reid amendment that would have required senators who catch rides on corporate jets to pay charter rates. Now they reimburse jet owners with the far cheaper equivalent of a first-class ticket.

The bill was jointly sponsored by Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell noted that a similar ethics bill passed the Senate last year by a 90-8 vote and said he hoped that they could "continue to work on a path toward finishing the underlying bill."

He also pointed out that, before coming to a final vote on the bill last year, Democrats had used a similar procedural tactic to win a vote on a proposal they wanted considered.

Democrats said the GOP amendment sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire was not relevant to the ethics bill, and Republicans in turn said they would not vote to proceed unless Gregg's line-item veto proposal came to a vote.

"I cannot support ending debate on this bill until the Senate has had a chance to fully debate and vote on a proposal to improve the government's stewardship of taxpayer dollars, and I look forward to working with my colleagues across the aisle to achieve that goal," Gregg said.

Reid and Gregg were close to an agreement on bringing the line-item veto proposal to the floor this spring, but Reid said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a staunch opponent of ceding any legislative control over the purse to the president, had objected.

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