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House GOP eyes ban on free trips for lawmakers

Romney says gifts will go to charity

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans, seeking to recover their standing with voters following a lobbying scandal, are considering a total ban on privately funded congressional trips, the lawmaker leading the reform effort said yesterday.

Representative David Dreier, Republican of California, said GOP leaders were ''seriously considering" the need to eliminate all privately financed travel. ''That would be a very strong statement. We want to be bold," said Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert asked Dreier to come up with an overhaul of lobbying ethics rules after lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to felony charges involving his influence-peddling activities in Washington. Abramoff's clients distributed money to both Republicans and Democrats, although Republicans were the main beneficiaries and have the most to lose from the election-year fallout.

Also yesterday, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said the Republican Governors Association would donate to charity $500,000 in contributions it received from a donor entwined in the Abramoff investigation.

Romney, a potential 2008 presidential candidate and the newly elected chairman of the governor's association, said it will give the money to American Red Cross chapters in five hurricane-ravaged states. The association had received donations in that amount in October 2002 from a public affairs company owned by Michael Scanlon, Abramoff's business partner.

''When influence peddling is alleged, a political institution like the Republican Governors Association wants to be above any possible shadow of complicity," the governor said.

Scanlon, like Abramoff, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges as part of a federal probe of influence peddling. President Bush, Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and Hastert -- all Republicans -- have already given charities much smaller sums equal to donations they received from Abramoff or his associates.

With the House still in its January recess, Dreier said it will be weeks before he comes up with definitive legislation on private travel. He said he also wanted to deal with the ''revolving door" issue -- lawmakers who become well-paid lobbyists after leaving office.

Representative Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat, cosponsor of one of several lobbying ethics bills that have been introduced, said travel and gift issues must be addressed, but only as part of a larger package. He said legislation must ''deal with comprehensive top-to-bottom cleaning" that also includes slowing the revolving door, greater transparency, and better enforcement of the rules.

Emanuel's bill would not ban privately funded travel but would require members to certify that a trip was not arranged by a lobbyist or foreign agent and to provide detailed descriptions of expenses. The House ethics committee would set guidelines for allowable expenses.

Current congressional rules prohibit lobbyists from paying for travel for members of Congress and their staff.

But qualified private sponsors can pay for food, transportation, and lodging when members of Congress travel to meetings, speaking engagements, or fact-finding events in connection with duties.

There have been incidents ''which would clearly be seen as abuse of that," Dreier said.

Abramoff was cited for arranging lavish trips for members and their staff, including trips for former majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas to the Mariana Islands and to Scotland, where he played golf at St. Andrews.

A total ban on privately funded travel is likely to meet some resistance from lawmakers accustomed to fact-finding trips arranged by think tanks and nonprofit groups as an alternative to taxpayer-funded trips.

''There's a difference between a fact-finding trip that you do with the Aspen Institute and these trips funded by lobbyists and corporations where you do an hour of work and then play golf at St. Andrews all day," said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California. The Aspen Institute is a global policy think tank that sponsors fact-finding trips for lawmakers.

Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, said her group was encouraged by proposals to impose bans on travel. But she added that ''if they just put on another ban," without proper enforcement, ''it won't do any good."

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