(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Jan. 2 story about congressmen returning contributions received from lobbyist Jack Abramoff incorrectly stated the year Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. The year was 1994.)
WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress who once counted on super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to help finance their campaigns have begun returning the cash they got from him and his clients, signaling a growing worry that ethics -- and the scandal surrounding Abramoff -- will become issues that could affect close House and Senate races in next year's midterm elections.
Abramoff, a powerful Washington figure who owned a tony restaurant frequented by members of Congress, is under federal investigation for allegedly swindling American Indian tribes out of millions of dollars in lobbying fees and contributions to Abramoff's associates.
With a court date looming Jan. 9 -- and the possibility that Abramoff will cut a deal with prosecutors before that date -- at least two dozen lawmakers have refunded money they fear could look tainted by Election Day in November.
''They're obviously worried," said Michael Malbin, director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. ''If people get disgusted by the relationship between the people in power and the lobbyists, [Abramoff] is going to become their poster boy."
If a lawmaker is not personally tied to any possible illegal activity involving Abramoff, then giving the money back could burnish his or her image with voters, Malbin said.
But if, as many political analysts suspect, some senators or House members are linked to Abramoff and potentially illegal activity, Malbin said, then ''returning the check won't begin to take care of the problem."
Montana Senators Max Baucus, a Democrat, and Conrad Burns, a Republican, were the latest to return Abramoff-connected cash.
Baucus returned $18,892, including $1,892 he had failed to report for use of Abramoff's skybox at a Washington, D.C., sports arena.
Burns, who has been targeted by Democrats in November's election, gave back $150,000 in contributions before Christmas, reversing an earlier position that he would not return the money.
''The contributions given to my political committees by Jack Abramoff and his clients, while legal and fully disclosed, have served to undermine the public's confidence in its government," Burns said in a statement explaining his reversal.
A Burns aide said the senator has not been implicated in any of the Abramoff investigations, and has not hired a lawyer to handle the case.
Abramoff's dealings are the subject of a Senate probe and a criminal investigation.
Among the deals being scrutinized are contributions from the tribes who hired Abramoff to politicians and political groups associated with him, and overseas trips paid for by Abramoff and involving Tom DeLay, former House majority leader and Republican of Texas, among other political figures.
Capitol Hill sources have also suggested that Abramoff gave free meals and drinks at his restaurant to lawmakers, in violation of a congressional rule barring gifts worth more than $50.
Some political strategists and congressmen believe it's not necessary to return campaign donations simply because the contributor is under investigation.
Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the committee has not recommend to GOP candidates that they return money from Abramoff or his clients.
But on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are uneasy, worried that any connection to Abramoff could become a campaign liability that far outweighs the campaign help he may have given them.
Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who, like Burns, sits on a congressional committee that oversees Indian tribes' issues, returned $67,000 in Abramoff-related donations a few days before Burns and Baucus gave back their campaign cash.
''Members of Congress try to hold onto as much money as possible, until it becomes politically distasteful to hold onto it," said David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund.
He predicted that lawmakers who accepted contributions from Abramoff may face serious questions from their constituents on the campaign trail.
''What it does is shine a very bright light on our campaign finance system," he said.
Democrats intend to make ethics an issue against Republicans in next year's elections, using the indictments of DeLay on money-laundering charges unrelated to the Abramoff probe, and former vice presidential aide I. Lewis ''Scooter" Libby for allegedly lying to a grand jury, to paint the GOP as a party immersed in scandal.
New Hampshire Democrats have hounded the state's GOP representatives, Charles Bass and Jeb Bradley, to give back contributions they received from a DeLay political action committee.
Bradley has returned such campaign contributions; Bass hasn't, but has called for DeLay to be replaced as the House leader.
Democratic strategists compare the current series of Republican ethics headaches to the House banking scandal in the early 1990s, when dozens of lawmakers were found to have repeatedly written bad personal checks on their House bank accounts, some racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overdrafts -- without penalties.
Democrats believe the ensuing voter anger contributed to their loss of dozens of seats in 2004, giving control of the chamber to Republicans.
The Abramoff and DeLay cases, Democrats believe, could help them pick up some seats next year and perhaps even regain majority control of the House.
''My sense of this is that voters are cynical and angry to start, and that more scandal just makes matters worse," said Peter Fenn, a veteran Democratic consultant and former congressional staffer.
He noted that former House speaker Jim Wright, Democrat of Texas, was forced to resign from Congress in 1989 because lobbyists bought large quantities of his books, then handed them out at fund-raisers.
The Abramoff case ''is clearly a much bigger scandal than the House bank or a book," Fenn said.
But while DeLay limited his handouts to fellow Republicans, Abramoff spread his money around to lawmakers and candidates in both parties.
According to an analysis prepared by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Abramoff and his clients doled out more than $4.4 million to candidates since 2000, with $1.5 million of the money going to Democrats.
While Democrats seek to taint Burns with the Abramoff scandal, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has gone on the offense, pointing out that Abramoff gave cash not only to Baucus, but to Harry Reid of Nevada, Senate minority leader and the Democrats' leader.