Prospects for swift debate and passage of a lobbying reform measure in the Senate were thrown into the lurch Wednesday afternoon when Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) made a gambit to block the Dubai ports deal with an amendment to the bill.
The move prompted Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to file cloture on the bill to block Schumer’s proposal and any others not germane to the reform measure.
“We had been working together in a bipartisan way,” Frist said in a floor speech explaining his decision. “I thought up until a few hours ago we had a very good chance of completing this bill this week.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he hoped that “cooler heads will prevail” today.
“I think we can get a lobbying reform bill,” Reid said. “It’s now a question of when.”
Negotiations between the leadership continued Wednesday night, with Frist angling for a vote on cloture today in the hopes he could wrap action on the lobbying reform bill shortly. It was unclear Wednesday evening if the developments spelled doom for some of the most significant reform proposals, offered as amendments to the bill but not yet taken up.
“It just brings us to a halt,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in an interview shortly after Schumer offered his amendment. McCain, a leader on the issue, said the development made reform “immeasurably more difficult.”
The Senate had barely cracked a long list of amendments when dispute over Schumer’s amendment brought the process to a halt.
Lawmakers had voted along party lines earlier to reject an amendment by Reid that would have added several provisions drawn from the Democrats’ reform package. Senators also voted to include meals in a ban on lobbyist-sponsored gifts for lawmakers and staffers.
Senators were wrapping up debate on an amendment to bar anonymous holds on Senate measures when Schumer offered his proposal.
That threw into limbo a number of amendments considered key to the scope of the reform package. Among them were proposals to create an independent Office of Public Integrity to oversee compliance with lobbying rules, to require Members of Congress to pay charter rates when they catch rides on corporate jets, and potentially to strip the bill of new disclosure requirements on grass-roots lobbying.
Three amendments from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) were also on deck. One would limit campaign donations by American Indian tribes, and the other two would restrict lawmakers’ spouses from lobbying their offices or being on their campaign payroll.
A senior Frist aide said Republicans were ready to call Democrats’ bluff by cutting off debate and forcing a vote on the reform package.
“We will file cloture and the Democrats will have a choice,” the aide said. “We will use all the procedural tools at our disposal to see if Senators want to pass lobbying reform, as every Member has said since the beginning of the second session of the 109th Congress.”
The developments capped a day in which the lobbying reform measure initially appeared to be cruising to easy Senate passage.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), co-managing the bill on the floor, praised Democrats for their help crafting the package as he introduced Reid’s amendment.