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House and Senate Republicans are once again pushing back estimated finish times for negotiations and final passage of a lobbying rules overhaul, predicting that work will continue past the Memorial Day deadline they had set last week.
Though a number of thorny issues await negotiators, no conferees have been named yet from either chamber.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is making “incremental progress” in talks with Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a senior GOP aide said. But for the next week at least, the issue will take a back seat to the high-profile debate over immigration.
On the House side, Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday that he hopes a conference report can be hammered out soon, if only to clarify rules for earmarks on spending and other bills. Asked later why the lobbying overhaul has not yet gone to conference, Boehner said, “I don’t make those rules.”
A House Republican leadership aide said that there have been no significant steps forward this week.
While Senate negotiators may be named later this week, no action on the bill is expected before the Memorial Day recess, said a source close to Senate leadership.
For outside watchdog groups, who have panned the overhaul measures as weak at best, a delay could be the best thing to happen to the effort in months. With federal prosecutors ratcheting up probes of lawmakers on several fronts, reformers say Members of Congress may feel pinched to strengthen the lobbying bills in conference.
“I think time is working against these guys,” said Mike Surrusco, director of ethics campaigns for Common Cause. “As soon as these investigations break open, with an indictment or even a guilty plea from somebody more significant than [convicted former GOP aide and lobbyist] Tony Rudy, that will increase the pressure on them to do something more.”
Stop-and-go progress has typified the effort to rework lobbying rules since lawmakers first announced their intention to tackle the issue at the beginning of this year. Early Republican predictions that a package could be cleared by spring quickly fell apart after House GOP leaders encountered a surprise backlash to tough reforms from their own conference.
Then, in early March, the Senate version appeared to be cruising toward passage when it was derailed by the Dubai ports controversy. It passed later that month.
Negotiations to iron out a variety of significant differences between the bills have been teed up for two weeks, ever since the House passed its version of lobbying reform on May 3.
The latest delay comes after GOP leaders on both sides of the Capitol last week said they would have negotiators named by the middle of this week. It is unclear if leaders are trying to work out a conflict or simply have been distracted by other business. Regulations of 527 groups favored by Republicans are expected to be a partisan flashpoint in negotiations, but other items, including those addressing disclosure, grass-roots lobbying and earmarking, could prove tricky as well.
Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who will likely lead negotiations from his chamber, said last week he has been talking informally with his Rules panel counterpart, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), but a Senate Rules spokeswoman said they will not reach any substantive agreements until the negotiators are named.