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House overwhelmingly passes ethics, lobbying bill

Measure requires more disclosure

WASHINGTON -- The House gave final and overwhelming approval yesterday to a landmark bill that would tighten ethics and lobbying rules for Congress, passing it on to a Senate that is under a new ethics cloud after Monday's FBI raid on Senator Ted Stevens's house.

The new lobbying bill would for the first time require lawmakers to disclose small campaign contributions that are "bundled" into large packages by lobbyists, and it would require lobbyists to detail their own campaign contributions, as well as payments to presidential libraries, inaugural committees, and charities controlled by lawmakers. The proposal also would put new disclosure requirements on senators' "earmarks," spending measures for lawmakers' pet projects.

"What we did today was momentous," declared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California. "It's historic."

And good-government advocates agreed. The bill, which passed 411 to 8, faces hurdles in the Senate, though leaders of both parties predicted it will pass.

Stevens, Republican of Alaska, threatened yesterday to try to block it in a closed-door lunch with his fellow Republican senators. His concerns about the bill have nothing to do with his legal troubles, but he has objected that the legislation's new restrictions on lawmakers' use of corporate jets unfairly penalize members of Congress who live in distant states, as he does.

And a handful of Senate conservatives have contended that Democratic leaders had weakened the earmarks-disclosure provisions. Representative Mike Castle, Republican of Delaware, who could not get overhaul legislation approved last year, said the final bill became considerably less tough on rules disclosing the bundling, or aggregating, of small campaign contributions into large donations by lobbyists.

House negotiators also refused to extend the current one-year cooling off period when House members are prohibited from becoming lobbyists. Such haggling had helped delay final passage of ethics legislation until this week. A priority of Democrats, the House and Senate proposals had been stalled until negotiators worked out a compromise in recent days to get it passed before the August recess.

The legislation would end secret holds in the Senate, which allow a single senator to block action without disclosing his or her tactics. Members of Congress would no longer be allowed to attend lavish parties thrown in their honor at political conventions. Gifts, meals, and travel funded by lobbyists would be banned, and travel on corporate jets would be restricted. Lobbyists would have to disclose their activities more often and on the Internet. And lawmakers convicted of bribery, perjury, and other crimes would be denied their congressional pensions.

"These are big-time fundamental reforms," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the open-government group Democracy 21.

But the bill was weakened during negotiations between House and Senate Democrats. The original House bill mandated the disclosure of bundled contributions of more than $5,000 every three months. Under the final bill, lawmakers would have to report every six months any lobbyist-bundled contributions totaling more than $15,000.

Some conservatives latched on to the revision of the earmark-disclosure rules that had passed in the Senate in January. A prohibition on any earmark that would financially benefit lawmakers, their immediate families, their staff, or their staff's immediate families was altered to say that the banned earmark would have to advance a lawmaker's "pecuniary interest."

Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, who has blocked the legislation in the past, confirmed that he remains uncomfortable with the broader bill's mandates on lobbying disclosures and gift bans.

"You could've done nothing, or some staff member could have made an innocent mistake, and now you're defending yourself in a court of law," Coburn said. "It's nuts."

It may be even more difficult for Republicans to block the measure with their senior senator, Stevens, under a cloud of suspicion. FBI agents raided the senator's house Monday, looking for evidence in a corruption probe.

And yesterday, the House ethics committee indicated it may be considering a probe into whether Representative Heather Wilson, Republican of New Mexico, violated rules by calling a federal prosecutor about an investigation.