your connection to The Boston Globe

Senate approves ethics overhaul

Measure targets lobbyist influence

WASHINGTON -- The Senate, responding to voter frustration with corruption and special-interest influence in Washington, last night overwhelmingly approved far-reaching ethics and lobbying overhaul legislation.

Under the bill, passed 96 to 2, senators would give up gifts and free travel from lobbyists, pay more for travel on corporate jets, and make themselves more accountable for the pet projects they insert into bills.

Majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada who made the bill his first initiative as head of the Senate, called it the "most significant legislation in ethics and lobbying reform we've had in the history of this country."

The Senate did not support a proposal that would have set up an independent office to investigate the ethical breaches of members. It did, however, vote to prohibit spouses of sitting members from lobbying the Senate and ban lobbyists from funding extravagant parties for members at national conventions.

Passage of the bill came a day after the measure appeared dead, the victim of a test of will between the two parties. Republicans were angry they could not get a vote on a proposal to give the president, with congressional approval, more power to kill single spending items in larger bills. So GOP senators voted against a resolution needed to move the ethics bill to final passage.

Under the agreement, the sponsor of the line-item veto amendment, Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, will be allowed to offer his plan as part of the next bill to reach the Senate floor, a proposal to raise the minimum wage while giving small businesses tax breaks. That will take place on Monday.

The Senate, on a 55-to-43 vote, approved an amendment pushed by Senator Robert Bennett, Republican of Utah, to strip a provision requiring reporting of grass roots lobbying. Backers said it would shine light on special-interest groups that use "hired guns" to organize mass mailings, phone-ins, or e-mail campaigns. Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and conservative groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition, argued that it was a free-speech issue.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, part of a coalition pressing for lobbying reform, said the groups were disappointed with the votes on grassroots lobbying and the independent office on ethics. But he said the bill responded to the "deep concerns of the American people about corruption and ethics problems in Congress" and "will change the way business is done in the Senate."

Both Massachusetts senators, John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, backed the bill. Voting against it were Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Orrin Hatch of Utah.