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Parties Race for the High Ground of Ethics Reform on Capitol Hill

Times Staff Writers

With the taint of scandal hanging over the capital and threatening Republican candidates in upcoming elections, both parties are in a race to seize the mantle of reform and to win credit from voters for cleaning up government.

Leading Democrats are scheduled to roll out major policy proposals Wednesday aimed at accusing the GOP majority of cultivating a “culture of corruption,” while Republican strategists are working behind the scenes to shield their party from the charge -- and even outdo Democrats’ call for change.

Last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told a weekly gathering of conservative activists and lobbyists in Washington that reform would be key to the party’s playbook for November elections, which will determine who controls Congress.

Among the ideas being considered by GOP strategists: giving maverick Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a possible 2008 presidential contender and onetime rival of President Bush, a central role in convincing the public that Republicans can be trusted to clean up the political system they control. McCain, who has been leading a Senate investigation into the work of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has written proposals to enhance lobbyist disclosures and crack down on special-interest spending.

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Democrats, meanwhile, are huddling through the weekend to polish dramatic proposals targeting Republicans’ so-called K Street Project, the program developed by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other conservatives to make corporate lobbyists an integral part of the Republican political machine and to increase donations to GOP candidates.

The dueling approaches illustrate each party’s belief that the Abramoff scandal could be pivotal in midterm elections.

Republicans hope to prevent any erosion of the governing majority that was decades in the making. Democrats hope to undo Republicans’ lock on Washington by emphasizing ethics complaints against the Bush administration and congressional Republicans -- piled atop voter concerns over the Iraq war and the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

The ethics-focused strategy contains perils for both sides.

The GOP’s Mehlman, for example, made his remarks last week to the so-called Wednesday Meeting, a gathering of conservative movement leaders, K Street lobbyists and Capitol Hill leaders, many of whom have been associated at least tangentially with Abramoff and DeLay.

That group, headed by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, is soon to be a target of Democrats who seek to focus public attention on Washington’s Republican-dominated lobbying system in which Abramoff thrived.

Democrats, for their part, risk calling attention to money that some of their top officials, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, received from Abramoff’s clients. Moreover, the issue will test the party’s ability to convey a coherent message -- something that has eluded Democrats on the Iraq war and other major issues.

Democrats have been hammering at Republicans’ ethics problems for months, pointing to the Abramoff scandal as well as the CIA leak case that involved White House strategist Karl Rove and led to charges against I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff. Democratic aides have been working for months to draft reform-related legislation.

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The new -- and, to some, surprising -- theme expected to emerge this week will be the GOP as the “party of reform.” That campaign is expected to include legislation likely to be passed by the Republican-led Congress and embraced by Bush, perhaps as early as his State of the Union address this month.

“You’re going to hear from this president and see the Congress consider an agenda of real change and real reform in 2006,” Mehlman said in an interview.

The reform-related package gaining momentum among Republican leaders, sponsored by McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in consultation with Mehlman, seeks to curb the kind of pork-barrel spending that has expanded greatly under GOP control and has helped create an explosion in the number of lobbyists who prowl the Capitol seeking to pry loose taxpayer dollars for clients.

One idea pushed by Norquist and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) would tie lawmakers’ names to those “earmarks” in the federal budget. Another proposal, under consideration by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), would ban all travel paid for by lobbyists, including those for government agencies and foundations.

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Some of the Republican ideas would hurt Democrats. Mehlman wants to limit independent political groups, such as those that poured millions into the campaign against Bush in 2004.

Norquist, an architect of the K Street Project, said the GOP’s ideas could be a “shield and a sword,” referring to the political benefits of inoculating Republicans from the corruption charge and attempting to point out Democrats’ excesses.

During a lengthy interview, Norquist said DeLay’s resignation could pave the way for pork-barrel limits and other restrictions. He characterized DeLay as “an anti-reform guy” who opposed term limits and pushed to expand benefits for officeholders rather than consider what was best for the grass-roots conservative movement.

Norquist has written an article in the upcoming issue of the conservative journal American Spectator titled “The Perfect Storm,” in which he offers a prescription for Republicans’ troubles. Democrats might hope to run against GOP corruption, but the strategy indicates Democrats can’t “compete with Republicans on policy,” he writes.

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“How seriously can the party of Chicago, Louisiana and New Jersey run as the reform party?” he asks.

But Democrats have embraced the idea of reform with a degree of unity unseen in recent years on any other issue. The Democrats’ rollout Wednesday will include speeches and news conferences nationwide involving Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and others. The coordination contrasts with Democratic congressional leaders’ recent desire to distance themselves from Dean, who has a penchant for verbal gaffes.

On Capitol Hill, Reid and Pelosi will detail legislation calling for a ban on Congress members’ acceptance of trips from corporate lobbyists and for a clamp-down on lobbyist gifts, including meals and entertainment.

In Ohio, Dean will deliver his address outside the office of Gov. Robert A. Taft, a Republican who is under fire for accepting golf outings and who is at the center of a scandal over $10 million in missing workers’ compensation funds that had been invested in rare coins.

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Republicans fear the workers’ compensation scandal could break the GOP’s hold on Ohio, the deciding state in the 2004 presidential election, in time for the next presidential campaign -- perhaps with a Democratic sweep of the state in races this year. By visiting Ohio, Dean hopes to link the local scandal with the Abramoff investigation, which has raised questions about Rep. Bob Ney, one of the state’s most prominent Republicans in Congress.

In his Columbus speech Wednesday, Dean plans to say that “the Abramoff scandal is the tip of the iceberg,” according to excerpts from his address provided to The Times.

Dean will argue that the Abramoff scandal is a specifically Republican embarrassment, kicking back at GOP assertions that Democrats share culpability. He will catalog ethical questions facing Republicans including Rove and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is under scrutiny for possible insider stock trades.

“The Republican culture of corruption must come to an end,” he plans to tell his audience, a theme to be echoed by Pelosi and Reed in Washington and by leading Democrats in Minnesota, Montana, Utah and other states.

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Democratic Party strategists are also targeting Norquist and his Wednesday Meeting of activists, the center of the K Street Project.

The DNC plans to videotape participants as they enter and exit Norquist’s downtown Washington office building. DNC Communications Director Karen Finney said the idea was to call attention to the project and to the ties between conservative movement leaders and Abramoff.

“We want to hold Norquist and the K Street Project accountable as well as Abramoff,” Finney said.

The Abramoff scandal exposed the common practice of lawmakers’ accepting golf outings and other vacations sponsored by corporations and private lobbyists, trips sometimes led under the aegis of a nonprofit organization.

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DeLay, who was indicted by a Texas grand jury in a separate campaign finance investigation, had to give up his leadership post amid speculation that he could face charges for his association with Abramoff. Yet the three Republicans vying to succeed DeLay also have at least some connection to Abramoff or his clients -- as well as to the effort to strengthen ties between Republicans and lobbyists.

Flake summed up Republicans’ concerns for their reputations when he wrote Hastert this month that their “reputation as a governing majority has taken a beating” and that “continuing media coverage of indictments, possible indictments, plea deals, tainted campaign contributions, etc., has severely eroded the public trust.”

“While some of what has occurred can be attributed to partisan politics, much of it cannot. We have allowed, and in some cases fostered, an atmosphere that breeds corruption,” Flake wrote.


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