Santorum, McCain are new allies

Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) may seem an odd couple, but they are locking arms on lobbying reform as Santorum casts himself in the election-year role of clean-government champion and McCain seeks to establish his bona fides with conservative voters before the 2008 Republican presidential primary.

Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) may seem an odd couple, but they are locking arms on lobbying reform as Santorum casts himself in the election-year role of clean-government champion and McCain seeks to establish his bona fides with conservative voters before the 2008 Republican presidential primary.

McCain, the paramour of the Senate press corps, made a cameo appearance praising Santorum in the Pennsylvanian’s news release on the issue Tuesday, hours after the first of two reform-legislation committee markups this week.

“I commend Sen. Santorum for offering several important lobbying reform amendments in the Rules Committee today,” McCain said.

The newfound policy partnership is notable because the Arizona maverick seldom endorses the legislative priorities of Santorum, the Republican Conference chairman and an icon of the conservative movement.

Of the 166 bills and floor amendments Santorum has introduced in this Congress, McCain has attached his name to just one — the most popular among Santorum’s legislative proposals — that seeks to punish Iran’s regime and encourage democracy there. The bill 44 co-sponsors from across the political spectrum.

But Santorum, who once touted his ties to the controversial GOP lobbyist-employment machine known as the K Street Project, is struggling to win reelection. In recent weeks, he has embraced more stringent restrictions on lobbyist-lawmaker relationships than many of his Republican colleagues and engaged in a bipartisan working group on reform legislation.

That puts him in legislative line with McCain, who has long pursued the image of congressional reformer.

“We’ve been working very closely together on the issue,” McCain said in a brief interview yesterday.

Critics suggest that Santorum’s interest in cracking down on lobbyists is less than sincere.

“We wonder if McCain is as excited about the fact that Santorum has gotten more lobbyist money than anyone up in 2006,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer said.

Helping Santorum can only burnish McCain’s credentials among conservative donors and activists, whom he must court if he hopes to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

McCain called lobbying and earmark reform “a tough issue” and noted that espousing tight restrictions would not win a lawmaker any congeniality awards from his colleagues.

On Tuesday, Santorum offered four amendments to leadership-backed lobbyist- and earmark-disclosure legislation, sponsored by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), in the Rules Committee, on which Santorum serves. He won the adoption of two but watched Lott swat away another pair.

“I was particularly pleased with his amendment that would require senators to pay the charter rate when traveling on private aircraft,” McCain said in the Santorum release. “Although his amendment was defeated, I congratulate Sen. Santorum for his hard work and leadership on the critical issue of lobbying reform.”

Santorum spokesman Robert Traynham said Santorum’s partnership with McCain reflects “their long history of reform.” He pointed to Santorum’s efforts to call attention to the House Post Office and bank scandals that helped uproot Democrats in the 1990s.

Asked whether there was any connection between Santorum’s reelection bid and his interest in lobbying reform, Traynham answered, “None whatsoever.”

McCain’s lobbying-reform bill is scheduled for consideration today in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has far broader jurisdiction than the Rules Committee. The measure has just six co-sponsors, and Santorum is not among them.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairwoman, Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), the ranking Democrat, plan to offer a substitute amendment that would parallel several provisions of the McCain bill but also establish an Office of Public Integrity within Congress.

That office, with a director appointed by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, would act as a clearinghouse for an increasing volume of publicly disclosed reports by lobbyists on their lobbying activity and campaign-finance efforts. It would also have the power to investigate and report to the House and Senate ethics panels on allegations of unethical conduct.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said earlier this week that he would not decide whether to combine the two reform bills on the floor or move them on separate tracks until after today’s markup.

“My goal is to work with my colleagues in a bipartisan manner to develop a robust, comprehensive reform package that becomes a strong bipartisan bill we can move through the committee process and pass on the floor of the Senate,” Santorum said in his Tuesday release.

Indeed, Santorum has been working with colleagues from across the ideological spectrum of late.

As he boarded a subway car beneath the Capitol yesterday, Santorum could be heard urging Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to “let Joe offer his amendment.”

It was not clear to which amendment Santorum was referring or whether the amendment would be offered in committee or on the floor.