Dems, Repubs scramble to seize ethics high ground


    Congressional Republicans and Democrats are racing to outdo each
    other with ethics reforms, as they return to face an election year
    influence-peddling scandal that may produce grim headlines for some
    lawmakers.

    The lawmakers were spurred to action by the recent
    guilty plea of former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who agreed to tell
    prosecutors how he allegedly lavished donations, trips, restaurant
    meals and arena skybox parties on members of Congress who provided
    legislative help.

    The scandal already has produced casualties.
    Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican implicated in the Abramoff
    investigation, said Sunday he will step aside temporarily as chairman
    of the House Administration Committee. That panel controls internal
    House operations.

    Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who had ties
    to Abramoff and faces a Texas felony trial on campaign finance charges,
    earlier announced he would not try to regain his post.

    Democrats,
    who have adopted a “culture of corruption” theme in a drive to oust
    Republicans from control of Congress, intend to unveil this week a
    proposed ban on lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers.

    The ban on
    lobbyist gifts would include meals and tickets to sporting or
    entertainment events as well as travel, according to officials familiar
    with the proposals.

    Even before the announcement, aides to the
    Senate Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, circulated a memo
    Monday night saying he will implement the change immediately for his
    own staff.

    “No employee in Senator Reid’s federal offices will be allowed to receive any meals, gifts or travel from lobbyists,” it said.

    The
    Democratic package also will include doubling the current one-year
    cooling off period that former lawmakers or senior aides must observe
    before they are allowed to lobby without restriction.

    Republicans
    are hoping to limit the political fallout. Senate Majority Leader Bill
    Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., both have
    announced plans to consider changes in rules or law to limit the impact
    lobbyists have on members of Congress.

    Both men are considering
    bans on gifts and privately funded travel, and are waiting to hear
    recommendations from fellow Republicans on other measures.

    At the
    outset of the new congressional year, the internal policemen of both
    houses _ the House and Senate ethics committees _ are starting out on
    the sidelines as lawmakers return to work this week.

    The
    Associated Press asked the four lawmakers who lead the ethics
    committees whether they would make a commitment to investigate ethical
    wrongdoing if, as expected, the information Abramoff supplies exposes
    misconduct by a number of lawmakers. Each of the four _ two Republicans
    and two Democrats _ declined, through his spokesmen, to do so.

    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 lawmakers travel to meetings, speaking engagements or fact-finding
    events in connection with official duties. Abramoff’s clients had
    contributed to his nonprofit organizations, allowing those groups to
    sponsor congressional travel.

    Abramoff was cited for arranging
    lavish trips for DeLay, R-Texas, to the Northern Mariana Islands and to
    Scotland, where he played golf at St. Andrews. DeLay has said he did
    not know Abramoff paid for the travel and asked the House ethics
    committee to look into the trips. The panel has taken no action.

    © 2006 The Associated Press