GOP mulls best path to reforms

House Republican leaders are weighing whether to present their lobbying and ethics-reform bill piecemeal under a House rule that wouldn’t allow for amendments or as a catchall that would be open to varying degrees of alteration.

House Republican leaders are weighing whether to present their lobbying and ethics-reform bill piecemeal under a House rule that wouldn’t allow for amendments or as a catchall that would be open to varying degrees of alteration.

A large bill subject to a passel of amendments could present difficult votes for Republicans, already nervous about being linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), who resigned his seat last year after pleading guilty to accepting bribes.

But Democrats say they would seek to capitalize on any effort to limit debate on a bill intended to create a more open and transparent political process.

“How can you have a debate on open government if you restrict the discussion about it?” said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

House leaders are considering putting parts of the bill on the suspension calendar, congressional sources said. Amendments can’t be offered to bills on suspension, but each measure would require a two-thirds majority to pass. Generally, the suspension calendar is limited to noncontroversial measures.

Alternatively, the Rules Committee, controlled by House leaders, could block certain amendments from being offered during the floor debate while allowing others to go through.

“No decisions have been made yet on how to move it to the floor,” said Kevin Madden, the spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Watchdog groups joined Democrats in arguing that it is incumbent on Republicans, given the bill’s intended purpose of shining more light on the legislative process, to be as open to amendments as possible.

Limiting debate on the lobbying-reform bill is “counter to what the legislation is supposed to do,” said Mike Surrusco, director of ethics and campaigns at Common Cause, a government-watchdog group.

The House measure calls for new disclosure rules for lobbyists and for the first time would publicly attach members’ names to their earmark requests.

Members would also have to disclose employment negotiations with K Street firms. The bill also calls on the House Office of Inspector General to audit lobbyists’ disclosure reports randomly.

A number of bills have been offered in addition to the main package, and not just from Democrats.

Republican Reps. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Heather Wilson of New Mexico, both of whom face tough election challenges from Democrats, want a floor vote on a bill that would create an independent panel that could investigate complaints.

Shays testified recently to the Rules Committee in support of the amendment. He warned GOP leaders against putting the lobbying-reform package on the suspension calendar, saying that would be the “outrage of outrages.”

Wilson described the lobbying-reform package written by House leaders as a “good start” that needs strengthening.

“I don’t think we are doing well in detecting, investigating and responding to ethics violations when they occur,” Wilson said.

Wilson credited leaders with running an “open process” thus far. But she said she had not received any assurances that her bill would get a floor vote.

Even if it does, the bill’s chances of passage appear slim. Crider said the House Democrats generally don’t support the bill, believing the House ethics committee should be able to investigate complaints on its own.

The committee hasn’t met in more than a year, disrupted by ongoing disputes among Democrats and Republicans on the panel.

Watchdogs groups have said an independent panel is a critical component of reform. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) offered an amendment to create a panel during the Senate’s floor debate, but it failed, 30-67.

If House Democrats too are leery of an independent ethics panel, they have a series of other amendments at the ready, hoping to capitalize on allegations of corruption. They include measures that would require members to be presented with a list of how a bill was altered in conference committee before a floor vote.

Another bill would require that members pay full value for their use of corporate jets. Tickets currently are charged as first-class fares on commercial airlines, which are generally less expensive than charter prices.

A third measure would prohibit floor debate on bills until 24 hours after the Rules Committee sets the parameters of debate. Now, leaders must wait one legislative day, a length of time that is open to interpretation.

The House Rules Committee rejected those and other amendments sponsored by Democrats during its markup last week. A variety of other committees also have jurisdiction over components of the lobbying and ethics reform bill.

The House has already approved legislation placing limits on so-called 527 groups that operate outside the boundaries of existing campaign-finance laws. Most Democrats viewed the 527 measure as a potential poison pill to lobbying reform, but GOP officials opted for a separate vote on the campaign-finance legislation, which passed, 218-209.

If House Republicans seek to pass lobbying reform through a suspension vote, they will need the support of dozens of Democrats to clear it. Politically vulnerable Democrats could attract criticism on the campaign trail if they reject it.

The Senate passed its lobbying-reform bill, 90-8, late last month.