Looking to score a victory on a key campaign pledge before the August break, Democratic leaders are planning swift action this week on a lobbying and ethics package they unveiled Monday.
The measure rolls up months of contentious debate on the issue into a reform bill that imposes sweeping new disclosure requirements on lobbyists and lawmakers alike.
But some conservative Senate Republicans are trying to round up opposition to the measure over what they call a Democratic gutting of earmark transparency rules the chamber approved earlier this year. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), in a statement, called the redrawn earmark language “obscene.”
“Rather than opening the secret chambers of government to the public, this new Congress has opted to change the locks,” Coburn said. “This bill, which was negotiated in secret, guts key earmark reforms that both Houses of Congress approved overwhelmingly.”
The conservative group — led by Coburn and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) — will have a tough time convincing enough lawmakers to kill the bill by opposing a procedural motion to limit debate. Unlike their previous win against Democratic leadership on the issue, the conservatives are now effectively asking lawmakers to oppose the rest of the reform package to reinstate their version of earmark rules.
The House is expected to fast-track approval of the bill today under suspension of the rules. Then the Senate will vote on whether to limit the debate on the measure, with a vote on final passage expected Thursday. Since the bill includes changes to Senate rules, a two-thirds majority needs to approve the procedural motion to limit debate.
“We’ll fight for our right to amend it, and restore full earmark transparency and see where the votes are,” one conservative GOP aide said.
He pointed to conservatives’ success generating grass-roots opposition to an immigration reform bill earlier this year as the model: Using blogs, editorial boards and conservative talk radio stations to take up their cause.
But Democratic leaders, backed by endorsements from outside reform advocates, said they are confident they will have the votes to pass the bill this week.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said he had no worries whatsoever that the bill would pass.
“For whatever reasons Sens. DeMint and Coburn can’t admit we gave them everything they wanted. If they want to vote against the landmark legislation, they’re more than welcome to do so,” Manley said.
Conservative critics argue the new package cripples earmark disclosure rules the chamber adopted earlier this year. In memos circulated Monday, they charge it inappropriately confers on the Senate Majority Leader and committee chairmen the authority to decide whether the earmark rules are being followed; eliminates a requirement that earmark lists be searchable online; and allows Senators to sponsor earmarks that benefit their family members, among other complaints.
Senior Democratic aides dismissed the criticism as baseless. They said with tweaks designed to make the reforms more workable, the earmark rules live up to the standard set by DeMint when he successfully proposed strengthening the original Democratic package earlier this year.
For example, they said committee chairmen will be primarily responsible for deciding whether provisions in their bills amount to earmarks because if that duty was left to the Senate Parliamentarian alone, it could stall work on spending bills for months. They said the Majority Leader will step in to perform the function only in the event a chairman is unavailable.
They said lists of earmarks will, in fact, be available online and searchable 48 hours before votes on the underlying measures.
And they defended the wording of a provision meant to bar Senators from sponsoring earmarks to benefit their families as consistent with existing Senate rules. Conservatives said Senators could sidestep the prohibition, because as written, it only bans lawmakers from promoting earmarks providing a direct “pecuniary” benefit to themselves, which they argue would apply only to earmarks going directly into a Senator’s bank account. But a Senate Democratic aide said the construction is consistent with similar conflict-of-interest standards already in Senate rules.
Democratic aides said under the bill, every measure that comes to the floor will include a list of targeted spending and tax provisions in it. Lawmakers can use the list to challenge individual earmarks, forcing a vote. The earmark sponsor would have to round up 60 votes to defend the provision. An earmark added in a conference report could subject the entire package to a challenge.
Senate and House Democratic leadership aides, who worked through the weekend to finish drafting the measure, struck a compromise to preserve a bundling disclosure requirement that had generated static on both sides of the aisle.
Under the bill, campaign committees, not lobbyists, would have to keep track of the work lobbyists do to round up checks for them. They would have to file quarterly reports with the Federal Election Commission, detailing any lobbyist fundraisers who gather more than $15,000 for them over a six-month period.
The bill preserves the two chambers’ different approaches to revolving-door restrictions. While the House leaves unchanged its one-year cooling-off period for former lawmakers and staffers who take lobbying jobs, Senators would face a doubled two-year period banning them from direct lobbying.
The measure drops a proposal from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) that would have expanded the definition of prohibited activities from direct lobbying to backroom strategizing as well.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.