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House Set to Pass Lobby Overhaul

Attempting to make good on campaign pledges to clean up Congress, House Democratic leaders on Wednesday revealed the first installment of what they tout as a sweeping plan to overhaul lobbying and ethics rules.

The first round of changes — slated for approval Friday as part of the rules package for the 110th Congress — would impose a total ban on gifts from lobbyists, strict limits on travel and greater transparency for earmarks.

After approving rules changes directed at lawmakers’ behavior, House Democrats plan to turn their attention to a legislative measure aimed at lobbyist conduct that will move through regular order over the next several weeks.

The Senate, by contrast, plans to deal with both lawmakers and lobbyists at the same time in a package that will be jointly introduced today by incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The measure, slated to be numbered S. 1, mirrors one the Senate passed by an overwhelming margin last spring.

Public interest groups have derided the package as too weak, but Reid told colleagues in a Wednesday letter that the bill will come directly to the floor, where it will be open to amendment.

Senators will take up the bill Monday and debate it for at least a week, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) are expected to offer a package of amendments to beef up the bill. They also are separately mulling a substitute measure that would be co-sponsored by incoming freshmen, a Democratic aide said. Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss the plan, saying details were still being worked out.

Reid himself is not yet signaling whether he will sign on to what Obama and Feingold will propose.

“He’s prepared to allow a number of attempts to amend the bill, some of which he’ll support, and some of which he’ll oppose. But his goal is to get a strong bill out of the Senate and into conference as quickly as possible,” Manley said.

The kickoff of House Democrats’ reform drive was hailed by government watchdog groups as a dramatic first step toward reeling in lobbyist influence and tightening ethics standards for Members of Congress. But even as they lavished praise on the long-awaited details of the House rules changes, outside reform advocates struck a note of caution. They pointed out that the new rules will be meaningless without adequate enforcement and said it remains unclear whether lawmakers will repair a moribund process for policing their own ethics violations.

“This is a very good start, and it’s something [Speaker-elect] Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ought to be applauded for,” Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said. “But there is still no provision for an independent ethics agency, which is imperative to make sure these reforms aren’t just words on paper.”

Reform groups are pressing both chambers to establish an independent Office of Public Integrity to oversee compliance with ethics rules. Pelosi and incoming Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) have said they intend to appoint a bipartisan task force to study the issue and deliver a report by mid-March.

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