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Reform Backers Left Out

With a number of ethics-related probes of lawmakers intensifying, Senate leaders moved this week to put new momentum behind an overhaul of lobbying rules by naming negotiators to work out differences in the long-stalled bills.

The five negotiators are Republican Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.), Ted Stevens (Alaska) and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Daniel Inouye (Hawaii).

But the move cut out two lawmakers key to shaping the Senate measure — Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) — drawing a fresh round of criticism from ethics watchdogs.

“When you take the committee that produced the good part of the Senate bill and shut them out of the conference, you’re just sending a message here that we’re not going to have acceptable legislation,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer.

Lieberman said he was disappointed he was left off the conference. “It concerns me because half, or more than half of the bill came out of our committee,” he said, adding the measure should be strengthened.

A Frist spokeswoman said only that the size of the conference panel was a consideration in picking negotiators. “They wanted to keep it small,” she said.

Also absent from the conference committee will be Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a noted voice on reform issues who introduced the base bill on which the lobbying reform measure was built. But McCain likely dashed any chances of winning a spot at the negotiating table when he joined a handful of Senators voting against final passage of the bill, calling it woefully inadequate.

Mike Surrusco, director of ethics campaigns for Common Cause, noted the Senate negotiators “haven’t been champions for reform.”

“It’s hard to imagine this bill is going to get any better with these conferees,” he said.

Since House negotiators have not yet been named, it is still unclear how quickly the two bills can be harmonized and sent to the president’s desk.

House GOP leaders have been predicting imminent action on naming conferees since they approved their version of the legislation in the first week of May. Most recently, they said negotiators would be named this week.

But with no movement yet on that side of the Capitol, and lawmakers there still wrangling with spending bills as a weeklong recess approaches, aides said they don’t expect conferees to be named before Memorial Day. If House conferees aren’t tapped this week, it is not certain how quickly Republican leaders will move on the issue next month.

Once negotiators are named, aides said they expect differences between the House and Senate versions — which include varying approaches to grass-roots, revolving door, travel, earmark and campaign finance provisions — to be smoothed out in short order. “I don’t expect it to go very long,” one Senate aide said.

Prime among major stumbling blocks conferees will have to deal with is a House-passed provision, absent from the Senate bill, cracking down on 527 groups. The independent political groups favored Democrats in the 2004 elections, and Republicans are eager to cut off their funding before midterm election campaigns hit full swing.

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