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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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