By Elana Schor - 04/27/06 12:00 AM EDT
House Republican leaders yesterday scrambled to shore up support among their members for the lobbying and ethics reform bill , but disputes between appropriators and leaders over the scope of earmark reform remained a tall hurdle.
Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he believed the conference could work out its differences on the lobbying reform bill before scheduled floor debate begins today.
“My belief is that it can and should be solved tonight,” Blunt said yesterday, adding that leaders were committed to applying the reforms to authorizing committees. Yet he acknowledged that leaders could not pass the bill without making a deal with appropriators, which had yet to be reached by press time.
The terms of such a deal remained unclear even as the Rules Committee began deliberating guidelines for consideration of the bill. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) met with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the Speaker’s office during a series of afternoon votes yesterday, but Lewis, the Appropriations Committee chairman, remained mum afterward about any prospective deal.
He and his fellow appropriators argue that earmark reform should apply to tax and authorizing bills in addition to their committee’s legislation.
“The appropriators feel strongly that you should have parity with the other committees,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), an appropriator and member of the leadership.
Kingston, the vice chairman of the conference, said that he and Conference Secretary John Doolittle (R-Calif.) have asked Lewis for a pass to vote for the rule, given their positions in leadership. But he and other committee members said Lewis otherwise has the full support of his committee.
Leadership staff privately questioned whether or not Lewis had the full support of his panel during aborted negotiations over the budget earlier this month, but Republicans on the committee voted unanimously Tuesday to support their chairman and oppose the rule on the package unless leaders recognized Lewis’s proposal to expand earmark reform beyond appropriations.
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), said yesterday that appropriators and conservatives should consider joining forces to back his amendment extending the bill’s earmark reforms to tax and authorizing bills.
“Would we have the votes if the appropriators didn’t support it?” Garrett asked. Despite conservatives’ agreement with leadership to pursue comprehensive earmark reform piece by piece, he said, “we’re not really sure what we get right now.”
“Jerry Lewis said he’s not supportive of reform unless it’s broad-based,” Garrett added. “This is broad-based.”
But the two prominent RSC members from Arizona, Reps. Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, warned that the appropriators’ drive for broader earmark reform is a red herring designed to sink the entire lobbying-reform effort. RSC Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) issued a statement late yesterday echoing their suspicions.
“This is a poison pill by appropriators,” Flake said. He brought up his separate earmark bill, which makes changes similar to the Garrett amendment, noting, “Jerry Lewis is not on it. … Appropriators know you lose the whole thing if you broaden it. Let’s take what we’ve got.”
Both Flake and Shadegg said they trusted Boehner and other leaders to follow through on plans to broaden earmark reform eventually.
“Our leaders are genuinely trying to move down the road toward real earmark reform,” said Shadegg, who challenged Boehner for the majority leader’s post earlier this year. “The question is, who leads the Congress?”
Flake asserted that authorizing legislation, such as the transportation bill carrying the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” would not come before the House again for “a couple of years.” But Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.), an Agriculture Committee member, expressed concern about rampant earmarking in next year’s farm-bill reauthorization and said he would support the appropriators’ push for expanded reform.
At least one appropriations cardinal, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), said he was supporting Lewis despite lingering concerns over the institutional impact of allowing rank-and-file members to strike perceived earmarks from any bill.
“If anybody had an ax to grind, it would keep us from passing any conference report,” Walsh said. Spreading earmark reform to other bills “would be fair, but it would make it extremely difficult to pass bills.”
Republican leaders began discussing a legislative response to congressional influence-peddling scandals late last year, before GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff signed a plea deal with federal prosecutors and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) received eight months in prison for taking bribes from defense contractors. But internal schisms over the details of the bill forced leaders to slow down and herd cats within the conference.
At yesterday’s Rules Committee meeting, Dreier fielded more than 60 proposed amendments and tried to sooth Democratic anxiety over the rule governing debate on the reform bill.
“We will not have a closed rule on this. I feel very certain we won’t,” Dreier assured one minority witness.
Should GOP leaders allow Democrats a floor vote on the minority’s more stringent lobbying and ethics package, which was offered as a substitute amendment, too many defections by centrist Republicans could hand their leadership an embarrassing defeat. Members and staff said yesterday that legislation curtailing the political spending of tax-exempt 527 groups was being included in the current package to win support from centrist Republicans who would not otherwise back the overall bill.
Leaders were close to finalizing a deal yesterday to craft a rule for the reform bill that would automatically attach the already-passed 527 restrictions after the bill wins House approval, sending the combined language to conference with the Senate. Leaders made the change to address conservatives’ discontent with the phrasing of the 527 language included in the original version of the bill.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) dismissed the theory that adding 527 curbs would sway centrists to support the GOP leaders’ lobbying reform package with a swift “no way.”
“I’m not voting for an ethics bill if it’s a weak ethics bill,” Shays said. “I’ll vote for [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi’s [D-Calif.] if it’s stronger.”
Shays’s amendment to create an Office of Public Integrity that would police lawmaker and lobbyist disclosures has attracted six Republican co-sponsors. Shays said “at least five” of those members — Reps. Phil English (Pa.), Heather Wilson (N.M.), Joe Schwarz (Mich.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Jim Ramstad (Minn.) and Todd Platts (Pa.) — would vote with him against the rule for consideration of the bill if their public-integrity plan does not get a floor vote.
He predicted that his five amendments would only be accepted “if they think they can defeat them on the floor.”
Platts declined to comment on his vote, and the offices of Wilson, Ramstad, English, Schwarz and Gerlach did not return requests for comment by press time.
Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) said his vote on the reform bill would transcend “conference considerations” and questioned leaders’ decision late last week to remove a requirement that lobbyists disclose their contacts with individual lawmakers.
“I understand [Dreier’s] thoughts behind it, but it seems to me that eliminating that sends the wrong message,” McHugh said. “I think the value of retaining that probably outweighs” the value of allowing lobbyists to avoid reporting their contact with members.