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Senate panel backs more openness on ties to lobbyists

Plan requires lawmakers to report contact

WASHINGTON -- The public would know when a senator has a drink on a lobbyist's tab or quietly inserts a pet project into legislation under a measure that won unanimous approval yesterday by a Senate committee.

The 17-to-0 Rules Committee vote was the Senate's first stab at cleaning up the image of lawmakers that was tarnished two months ago when former lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in a federal corruption investigation involving the use of millions of dollars to influence policy.

The measure, sponsored by the committee chairman, Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, emphasizes greater transparency in interactions with lobbyists. Democrats on the panel, while generally favorable to provisions in the measure, said the proposal doesn't go far enough.

In a vote along party lines, the panel rejected an alternative, offered by ranking Democrat Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, that he said would add some badly-needed muscle to the proposal. Dodd's plan would have gone beyond Lott's ban on gifts from lobbyists to prohibit meals paid for by lobbyists and would further restrict privately funded travel.

It also would have increased to two years the moratorium for lawmakers accepting a lobbying job -- Lott's proposal retains the current one-year waiting period -- and required mandatory annual ethics training for congressional employees.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, said Democrats would continue working for ''real reform" when the lobbying issue reaches the Senate floor. ''The current proposal simply does not go far enough to put tough new rules on lobbying."

Under Lott's proposal, lawmakers could still accept food and drinks from a lobbyist but would have to post the value of their meals on their websites within 15 days.

Privately funded trips would have to be preapproved by the Senate Ethics Committee, and members would have to file a report on events attended during the trip and the names of any accompanying lobbyists.

Members catching rides on corporate jets for official trips would have to list the names of all those on the plane, including lobbyists.

The reputation of the Senate is at stake, said Senator Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat and a Rules Committee member, as he argued for strong measures to provide accountability on lobbying. Currently, he said, ''The used car salesman is about one notch above us."

The Rules Committee vote is expected to be followed by other actions in coming weeks intended to reduce the taint of scandal as legislators face disillusioned voters in an election year.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is to take up a more comprehensive bill tomorrow, sponsored by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut.

The full Senate could consider a combination of the two bills as early as next week.

House GOP leaders have also promised far-reaching changes in lobbying rules, although they have been slowed by dissension in their own ranks.

House Rules Committee aides said they may push for a temporary ban on all privately-funded travel pending a study on how to differentiate legitimate fact-finding missions from fun-in-the-sun outings to warm-weather resorts.

The Senate Rules Committee session aired senators' different approaches to dealing with the lobbying scandal.

''This is a constitutional right we are fooling around with," said Senator Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican, warning against restricting the rights of lobbyists or other citizens to petition their government.

Lott said the emphasis should be on more disclosure rather than on writing new laws. His bill would not ban privately-funded travel, as some have called for, or ban earmarks, the thousands of narrowly focused projects that members insert into larger, must-pass legislation.

Lott's measure would require public disclosure of earmarks, and the massive bills to which they are often attached, at least 24 hours before a Senate vote, and allow members to raise a point of order that could eliminate specific earmarks from legislation.

An amendment by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, raised to 60 votes, up from a simple majority in Lott's proposal, the votes needed to waive such a point of order.

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