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As Hearing Nears, Group Begins Ethics Ad Buy

As a Senate committee prepares to hold the first hearing on lobbying reform today, a liberal group that battled President Bush on Social Security reform will launch a $1 million TV campaign that hits the GOP on its ties to admitted felon Jack Abramoff.

The move comes as ethics-oriented attacks make other appearances in political ads, from New York to Montana and back to Washington. A long-shot candidate to unseat Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) has gone online in the Empire State with an Internet ad that attacks his opponent’s ties to corruption. And Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) went on the air in his state with a major ad buy Tuesday in which he defends himself from accusations that his staff did legislative favors for Abramoff. (See related story, Politics section.)

The national ad campaign linking Republicans to Abramoff is sponsored by the group Americans United and will start appearing on cable networks Thursday, with increasing frequency as President Bush’s Jan. 31 State of the Union address approaches. The liberal group, which cut its teeth last year attacking Bush’s Social Security overhaul plan, is officially relaunching today with a shortened name and a new focus on ethics.

The 60-second spot takes a direct shot at the president, seeking to tie recent White House missteps to the Abramoff saga unfolding on Capitol Hill. The ad blasts President Bush for what it claims are industry-friendly policies that have spawned high gas and prescription drug prices and for bungling the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Declaring it is “time for a change,” the spot endorses the Democrats’ reform package as the solution.

“We’re going to be engaged in this campaign for a matter of weeks and/or months until we feel satisfied the reform proposals being pursued are up to the task of addressing the current scandals,” group spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.

The bill backed by Americans United gets its first hearing today, alongside several others, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee holds a wide-ranging review of the proposals offered so far. The panel will hear from Senators pushing their own plans, as well as likely critics of reform, including leading lobbyists for business and labor.

Set to appear are Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.), and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Russ Feingold (Wisc.) and Barack Obama (Ill.). They will be followed by Dick Clark of the Aspen Institute, a leading sponsor of Congressional travel; Bill Samuel, top lobbyist for the AFL-CIO; former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), president of the National Association of Manufacturers; Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists; and Fred Wertheimer, a leading reform advocate as president of Democracy 21.

In the meantime, Senate Democrats appeared to be picking up support for their leading lobby reform measure, which is headlined by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). As of Tuesday evening, some 37 of the 44 Democratic Senators had signed on as co-sponsors to the measure, and privately, Democratic leadership sources anticipated that more would be added later this week.

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