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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.

Reid said Tuesday that he hadn’t “looked at the list of those who are on it” but added that he expects to get strong support from his Caucus. He also noted that many of his Members have yet to return to the Hill to fully focus on the bill.

Not yet co-sponsoring the measure are Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Chris Dodd (Conn.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Paul Sarbanes (Md.).

Independent Rep. Jim Jeffords, who caucuses with the Democrats, also has yet to sign on to the measure.

“The people who have been our soldiers [on lobby reform] are on it,” Reid said, noting that Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Feingold have already put their pen to the legislation.

The Senate Minority Leader said those Senators’ support “speaks volumes” about the measure’s credibility in truly reforming the influence of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. But Reid said Republicans must come on board for any real changes to take place.

“We cannot solve the problems unless it is bipartisan,” Reid said. “I hope we can get the Republicans to work with us.”

Republicans, for their part, say they too want a bipartisan outcome. One GOP Senate aide said Republicans want to work across the aisle on the issue, and that Frist has made clear the two parties should come together.

“We have had a few Democrats approach us about being bipartisan, but Reid seems to have to put out a heavy-handed word to stay away from working with Republicans,” said the staffer. “We hope that doesn’t last.”

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said that

bipartisanship is the goal, and any talk to the contrary is “ridiculous.”

Bipartisanship aside, Democratic Senators continued to press ahead with implementing provisions of the lobby reform proposal internally, before any legislation is passed. Reid’s chief of staff, Susan McCue, issued a memo instructing her office to shun lobbyist gifts from now on. She also urged other Senate offices to follow suit.

The latest Senator to take that tack was Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who on Tuesday also announced plans to prohibit his staff from accepting lobbyist gifts. Reid, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have already said they are putting in place similar gift bans.

It remains unclear whether Republican Senators will adopt a similar policy within their offices. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said, “The Leader’s office follows the rules currently in place and will abide by any rule changes that are adopted.” As for his colleagues, GOP sources indicated the topic is likely to come up today when leadership meets and later this week during the Senate Republican retreat at the Library of Congress.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) said Tuesday that at the moment, the issue of changing staff practices immediately is in the hands of the members themselves.

“You’d have to take it up with individual Senators,” he said.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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