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Ethics Bill Set for Brief Return Next Monday

Senators could vote as soon as next Monday on whether to add to their ethics overhaul a key provision that establishes an independent office to oversee compliance with lobbying laws.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) plans to return to lobbying reform — albeit briefly — on the day after the St. Patrick’s Day recess. He is aiming to hole a single vote on one ethics-related amendment for Monday, before launching into immigration legislation, which could fill up the Senate calendar for the rest of the week.

The exact nature of Frist’s plans were unclear at press time Friday because several calls to his office were not returned.

The potentially brief return to lobbying reform also depends on the willingness of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to withdraw his amendment blocking the Dubai ports deal — a step he has signaled he is willing to take. On March 8, Republicans and Democrats alike were surprised by Schumer’s pursuit of a ports amendment, and the move stopped the bill in its tracks even as it appeared to be cruising to passage.

Schumer has since indicated he could withdraw the amendment, because the company in question, Dubai Ports World, has pledged to divest itself of the six American port operations it had been set to acquire.

But the New Yorker’s back-off was not a done deal by press time. A Democratic source said that “there has been no agreement reached yet,” and a spokesman said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “needs to talk to members of his Caucus” before deciding how to proceed.

If everything falls into place over the recess, two sources close to the process confirmed, Frist plans to bring up the controversial issue of setting up an Office of Public Integrity, a body made up of nonpartisan staffers that would investigate suspected wrongdoing by lawmakers and lobbyists and refer cases to the ethics committees or the Justice Department.

The proposal has already stirred debate in the Senate, where it was stripped from a draft bill in committee. Members of the Senate Ethics Committee have led the charge against the plan, claiming it would strip their authority and invite abuses for political purposes. But some Senators, and independent watchdogs, argue that a new enforcement agency with a degree of distance from sitting Members is essential to giving teeth to the reform overhaul.

Senate aides said that details for consideration of the broader bill are still being worked out, with leaders from both parties still needing to reach an agreement on a limited number of amendments.

Other amendments expected to meet opposition eventually include measures to require lawmakers to pay charter rates for rides on corporate jets, to allow lawmakers to challenge earmarks added to conference reports and to limit campaign contributions from American Indian tribes.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), angry at Schumer’s gambit earlier this month, added a late amendment that would restrict donations to the independent political groups known as 527s. The prospect of 527 language being added to the measure has prompted Democrats — who disproportionately benefited from their largess in the 2004 election — to complain that Republicans are muddying the waters by adding a partisan campaign finance proposal to the lobbying bill.

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