A bill to curb the influence of lobbyists was all but killed in the Senate on Thursday, the victim of one of a half dozen filibusters that Republicans have been using to delay or defeat Democratic initiatives in the waning hours of the 103rd Congress.
Although the Senate passed the legislation by an overwhelming majority earlier in the session, sponsors fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a GOP filibuster blocking final passage. The measure would tighten financial disclosure requirements for lobbyists and bar them from giving gifts or providing free travel and entertainment to lawmakers.
Leaders of both the House and Senate are continuing to discuss possibly making one final effort to salvage the bill or at least part of it, by changing lobbying disclosure requirements that Republicans oppose. Sensitive to allegations that they are being almost blindly obstructionist, Republicans offered to support a ban on gifts if it were brought back as a separate bill without the other lobbying provisions.
But as the mood on the eve of adjournment turned progressively more partisan and bitter, angry Democrats were showing no inclination to give the Republicans political cover for what has clearly been a strategy aimed at blocking almost every major measure, apparently in the belief that voter discontent with Congress will work to GOP advantage in the Nov. 8 elections.
With Congress set to adjourn today, the chief House and Senate sponsors of the lobbying bill said that there would not be enough time, in any case, to negotiate any significant changes and that the legislation is effectively dead.
“A Republican-led filibuster has apparently killed the best chance in 40 years . . . to enact a tough lobbying reform and gift-ban law,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
“The Republicans have killed it,” said Rep. John Bryant (D-Tex.), Levin’s counterpart in the House. “They have preserved their free meals and free tickets and free golf outings for another two years.”
The vote was 52 to 46 on the cloture motion, as seven moderate Republicans sided with 45 Democrats, including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, in voting to end the filibuster. They were opposed by 10 Democrats and 36 Republicans.
The lobbying bill, which would ban virtually all gifts from lobbyists and put an end to the much criticized junkets and charity sporting events in which many lawmakers participate, was one of three reform bills the Democrats hoped would bolster their standings in the polls this November by convincing voters that Congress is serious about restricting the influence of special interests.
The other two bills, measures to streamline the congressional bureaucracy and change the way political campaigns are financed, also died in the Senate, largely because of Republican opposition.
Democrats charged that Republicans were simply trying to keep anything on President Clinton’s legislative agenda from passing Congress before the elections.
Republicans, however, said that their objections have nothing to do with the gift ban but with another provision which they feared might impose unfair restrictions on grass-roots lobbying efforts.
Alarmed by this interpretation of the disclosure requirements, major lobbying groups, including the conservative Christian Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union, joined a campaign against the bill mounted last week by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other GOP leaders.
Echoing Gingrich’s complaints, the lobbyists argued that the disclosure requirements could oblige grass-roots groups that lobby Congress to reveal the names of their members and even require ordinary individuals who call to bend the ear of their representatives to register as lobbyists.
Levin, however, charged that those interpretations amounted to distortions and “deliberate disinformation” put out by Republicans to “scare people into opposing the bill.” He said that the registration requirements would apply only to paid professional lobbyists and that the only names they would have to disclose would be those of the “person or persons who pay them to professionally lobby” Congress.
He suggested that Gingrich and other GOP leaders were only trying to keep Democrats from claiming credit for their reform efforts. He noted that Republicans overwhelmingly supported the disclosure provisions when the Senate passed the lobbying reform bill on a 95-2 vote last year. The gift ban, which subsequently was folded into the lobbying legislation when it emerged from a conference with the House, cleared the Senate, 95 to 4, last spring.
But the last-minute surge of opposition--from conservative Christian organizations, radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--convinced even some Democrats to change their minds and support the GOP filibuster.
“One of the things I’ve learned over the past few days is that lobbyists are very good at lobbying,” said freshman Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), another supporter of the bill. “They mounted a full-court press to defeat this bill and they succeeded, at least for the moment.”