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After a flare-up earlier this week over their respective intentions in the reform debate, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are forging ahead with separate proposals to tighten rules on lawmakers’ interactions with lobbyists.
Sitting at the same table before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Wednesday, each announced his own plan to raise the reform bar with a measure to crack down on the practice of earmarking. Obama also unveiled plans for a bill to create an independent enforcement office to uphold the new rules.
The Senators’ parallel proposals came days after the two captured national attention for a testy exchange of letters. After Obama wrote McCain dismissing a bipartisan task force the Arizonan had suggested, the veteran reformer fired back that Obama was just trying to make political hay out of lobbying reform. Obama claimed he had been misunderstood.
The two went to lengths Wednesday to downplay the dispute, posing with matching smiles for photographers before the Rules panel hearing began and making light of the squabble in their opening remarks.
“Its always fun to watch some sound and fury between Senators,” Obama told reporters after the hearing. “But moving forward I think what’s clear is there’s probably more in common between myself and Sen. McCain on a lot of this stuff than some of our other colleagues.”
Indeed, though neither indicated he would support the other’s plan, their earmark proposals are largely similar. McCain’s bill, called the Pork-Barrel Reduction Act, would allow any Senator to challenge an earmarked provision and require 60 votes to overcome the objection. It would force conference reports to be made available 48 hours before a vote. And to promote transparency, any earmark in a bill would have to be disclosed in an accompanying report, along with the name of the lawmaker requesting it, and the amount paid to any lobbyists promoting it.
Obama’s version, called the Integrity in Earmarks Act, would require that earmarks — in addition to their sponsor and justification — be disclosed 72 hours before Senate consideration. They would have to be germane to the bill and listed in its actual text, instead of just the conference report. And like McCain’s bill, the measure would require earmark recipients to disclose how much they paid lobbyists to secure the project.
McCain said he will introduce his bill today, with bipartisan support from Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), John Ensign (R-Nev.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.). “The process is broken and it needs to be fixed,” McCain told the committee.
The two proposals come on the heels of an earmark reform plan offered last week by Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and panel member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). That bill also allows Senators to challenge earmarks and ensures conference reports are published online at least 24 hours before a vote.
Meanwhile, Obama is looking to sew up what watchdogs have called a gaping hole in reform plans by calling for an independent ethics commission to enforce lobbying laws. The nine-member panel would include four former Members of Congress and four former judges. The plan does not specify who would hold the ninth spot. The panel would act as an investigative body, with the power to issue subpoenas and compel testimony from witnesses and the production of documents.
To deter abuse of the commission for partisan purposes, false complaints would carry stiff penalties — a $10,000 fine and up to a year in jail. And there would be a three-month blackout on new complaints prior to elections.
Obama said he was skeptical Senators — as members of a “clubby institution” — would submit to discipline from a team of outsiders or, for that matter, any tough new rules regime. “I’m concerned that we may go for the easiest low-hanging fruit and we don’t move out of our comfort zone and do some things that may be tough but ultimately are going to be important to restore credibility,“ he said.
Lobbying reform proposals that appeared to be cruising to enactment just weeks ago have stuttered recently. House Republican leaders last week were forced to back off their plans when the GOP rank and file returned from the winter recess pushing back against swift rules changes. Some reforms, such as bans on privately funded travel and gifts from lobbyists, were further imperiled with the election of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the post of House Majority Leader.
Boehner is lukewarm on cracking down, favoring more transparency instead. But the Republicans’ new No. 2 in the House has advocated for the type of earmark reform gaining steam in the Senate. House Republicans have yet to produce a lobbying reform package, expecting it will start to take shape with the input of Conference members at the GOP retreat starting today.
In the Senate, Republican leaders are aiming to mark up a bill later this month. “We’re still in the process of seeing exactly what we’re going to do strategy-wise,” said Robert Traynham, spokesman for Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is leading reform efforts on behalf of GOP leadership. “We’re still seeking input and figuring out the timing.”
Santorum has said a bill McCain introduced last year will likely be the platform for the Republican package.