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Line-Item Veto Stalls Ethics Bill

Republican Senators threatened Wednesday to derail a lobbying and ethics overhaul package if Democrats block consideration of a presidential line-item veto the GOP wants added to the bill.

The blow-up brought consideration of other proposed amendments to a halt Wednesday afternoon and threw into uncertainty the prospects for a measure invested with so much importance that Senate Democrats tagged it S.1.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to avert a showdown by guaranteeing he would provide floor time before the Easter recess for a stand-alone bill granting the president rescission authority, and, if it passed, would send it to conference negotiations with the House. But in a floor debate with Reid, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who offered the amendment, appeared to reject the offer.

“Why not do it now?” he asked.

Senate leaders had hoped to reach an agreement about how to deal with more than a dozen remaining amendments and vote to cut off debate on the bill Wednesday evening. With Republican leaders pledging to filibuster unless the line-item veto was considered, Senators were poised at press time to vote sometime after midnight on the procedural motion ending debate.

Democrats charged Republicans with grasping for a last-minute way to torpedo the ethics legislation.

“If it wasn’t this amendment, they had any other number of poison pills designed to kill this bill,” a senior Democratic Senate aide said.

On the floor, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Republicans had read over the bill’s provisions during their weekly policy luncheon Wednesday and gotten “indigestion.”

But Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), one of the bill’s floor managers, retorted that he had presented the ethics bill at the gathering and “there was no suggestion that we should try to take this bill down with a subterfuge.”

At least one powerful Republican on Wednesday voiced discomfort with the scope of the bill. Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) said the reform drive had spun out of control.

“We’re in total free fall. We’re trying to react to press reports,” he said. “I think that a lot of this is hypocritical ... We’re making a lot of mistakes in this, in my opinion.”

The House last year approved the line-item veto, but it stalled in the Senate, where it was packaged with a number of other budget reforms. Senate Democrats on Wednesday said the proposal raises Constitutional issues and is too complex to deal with quickly.

The standoff over the Gregg amendment marks the second time in as many weeks a partisan blow-up has stalled progress on the Senate ethics bill. Democrats have stressed the importance of bipartisan cooperation on the measure, but last week they tried to kill an amendment from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) aimed at boosting transparency for earmarks. When that failed, they blocked an attempt to adopt the measure on a voice vote, as is common practice in such circumstances.

Democrats relented the next day, offering an amendment making some technical changes to DeMint’s proposal and then getting behind it.

Meanwhile, Senate aides and outside budget hawks were struggling to understand how earmark reform provisions adopted earlier this week will be put into practice.

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