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Democrats Prepare to Launch ‘Honesty’ Message

Hoping to gain an early political edge in 2006, Congressional Democratic leaders next week will unveil the first piece of their election-year agenda by announcing a far-reaching legislative package that the party says will clean up government and stop influence peddling in Congress.

The move comes as Congress is set to start the second session of the 109th Congress, and just days after former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion in a growing scandal that involves bribing Members in exchange for official acts.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will join with other Congressional Democrats at a Jan. 18 event to introduce their “Honest Leadership Act.” Reid and Pelosi plan to use it as the main component of the Democrats’ ethics agenda for 2006.

“We long ago identified the Republican soft spot, which is this culture of corruption that pervades every aspect of government in Washington,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

Manley described the Democrats’ ethics legislation as comprehensive and a “cornerstone” of the Democrats’ larger platform for change. He said Democrats will make clear that “Republicans have been too focused on their [own] problems” and the interests of lobbyists and special interests to govern.

“We need to clean up Washington so we can address the problems of the American people,” he said.

For months, Democrats have been wrestling with the details of their overarching party blueprint for the cycle, and have yet to decide when to formally unveil it to the public. Sources say there is an internal debate within the party about whether it is best to wait until later in the year to sell specific ideas to voters, or to unveil those ideas in the coming months when political momentum appears to be on Democrats’ side.

In the near term, however, sources indicated that Reid and Pelosi felt it timely to at least introduce their ethics agenda in January, sensing that the attention surrounding Abramoff and his ties to GOP Members was surging. Democratic leaders also want to put forth a strong anti-corruption message for the party at the outset of the Congressional session, and set the tone for a critical election year for the minority.

“We were planning this anyway before Abramoff pleaded guilty, but it is certainly more timely now,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly. “Essentially, we want to reform the way Congress works. This place is corrupt, and we need to clean it up.”

Democratic leadership sources said that the Honest Leadership Act, which is still being drafted, would call for a stronger enforcement of government ethics rules, including an effort to “fix” the revolving door used by Members, government officials and K Street.

Sources indicated that the legislation also seeks to revise gift and travel rules and crack down on “pay to play” politics — that is, the granting of political favors in exchange for campaign donations. It also would enhance oversight of the relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers, and require immediate disclosure of lobbyists’ activities, including for and with whom they are working.

Congressional Republicans, for their part, appear unfazed by the latest Democratic offensive, saying that Democrats are not immune from ethical challenges of their own.

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