Path Cleared for Lobby Vote

Posted May 23, 2007 at 6:37pm

Hoping to subdue a rising wave of resistance from within their own ranks with a procedural compromise, House Democratic leaders are set to put their long-stalled lobbying reform package to a vote today.

Leaders on Wednesday revised a strategy that had called for considering a controversial bundling disclosure requirement as an add-on to the broader overhaul. The measure, which would force lobbyists to report any political checks they solicit or arrange and then hand over to campaigns, prompted enough teeth-gnashing among Democrats that significant numbers were threatening to break ranks and oppose the rule governing debate on the package.

As late as Tuesday, Democratic leaders were considering whether they needed to punt the entire effort until after the Memorial Day recess to avoid defeat.

Instead, they hatched a new game plan they believe can carry the day: The disclosure proposal will still get a vote today — but as a stand-alone measure. Assuming it passes, the plan is to add it back to the reform package in conference talks with the Senate. A reform bill Senators approved earlier this year included a more broadly drawn bundling provision.

“If the House approves both bills, it will send a strong message that the House is in support of this approach,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who authored the bundling reforms.

It was unclear at press time what other proposed changes would be cleared for debate today, as the House Rules Committee was still sorting through a stack of nearly 50 amendments. One of those, offered by Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), revives a proposal to double the current one-year ban on former lawmakers and staff directly lobbying their former colleagues. Included in Democrats’ original reform plan, it proved so unpopular that Democrats decided to scotch it in committee.

An effort to force lobbyists who engineer grass-roots contact with Congress to register and report their activities — another hotly contested issue that was killed in committee — will stay dead for the remainder of the debate. Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), who crafted the proposal, said he decided against giving it another try on the floor after witnessing its resounding defeat in the House Judiciary Committee last week.

Meanwhile, concerns persist about whether House Democrats will, in fact, have the support they need to clear the procedural hurdle of the rule.

Meehan estimated two dozen Democrats still were not prepared to vote for the rule as of late afternoon Wednesday. For example, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) said he had been opposed to proceeding to debate on the package as long as the bundling provision was queued up as an amendment. Now, he said, he will support the rule, but only if he is certain leaders don’t plan to “bundle it together with the bundling plan” in conference.

Van Hollen said he believes “support is growing for the entire package, and there is a growing recognition that we need to do this.

“We won’t know for sure until the votes are up on the board,” he added.

A Democratic House leadership aide described leaders as “very confident” about the outcome of the vote.

Outside reform advocates mostly have held their tongues in recent weeks while Democrats appeared to wobble on their campaign pledges to overhaul the lobbying process. As the majority party dumped revolving-door and grass-roots reforms, watchdogs focused on bundling disclosure as the make-or-break provision.

So far, reformers are not raising any objections to the new procedural strategy. “It’s a distinction without much of a difference,” said Gary Kalman of U.S. PIRG. “We’ll see at the end of the day what comes out of conference. But they’d be hard-pressed not to include bundling if it passed the House. If they didn’t, they’d have a lot of explaining to do.”

Lawmakers from both parties on Wednesday described the bill as a work in progress unlikely to satisfy everyone. While Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) told the Rules panel he didn’t “pretend to be bringing forward a perfect bill,” Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who shepherded unsuccessful Republican reform efforts last year, pointed to a handful of provisions the GOP version included that were left out of the current package. Noting that Democrats derided the GOP effort last year as a “sham,” he called the current package a “sub-sham.”

Among Democrats, attitudes have tended to divide along lines of seniority. Rep. Alcee Hastings (Fla.), in his eighth term, scoffed at those he said “want Congress to be in sackcloth and ashes.”

Freshman Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.), on the other hand, said he is disappointed the bill doesn’t go further. “It’s not really tough enough,” he said. Walz said freshman Democrats are likely to introduce reform proposals sidelined in debate today as stand-alone bills.