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Congress embraces disclosure of earmarks and lobbyists fundraising
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    WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to make lawmakers disclose more about their efforts to fund pet projects and raise money from lobbyists, a move some called the biggest advance in congressional ethics in decades.
    The 83 to 14 vote, which sends the bill to President Bush, prompted Democrats to claim fulfillment of their 2006 campaign promise to crack down on lobbying abuses that sent some lawmakers and a prominent lobbyist to prison.
    The bill would require lawmakers to disclose those lobbyists who raise $15,000 or more for them within a six-month period by ‘‘bundling’’ donations from many people. Lawmakers seeking targeted spending projects, or ‘‘earmarks,’’ would have to publicize their plans in advance, although critics said the requirements are hardly airtight.
    The Democratic-crafted bill would bar lawmakers from taking gifts from lobbyists or their clients. Former senators would have to wait two years before lobbying Congress; ex-House members would have to wait one year.
    Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called it ‘‘the most sweeping reform bill since Watergate.’’
    But several Republicans said it fell short of requiring full disclosure of earmarks, which have soared in number — and controversy — in recent years. Some earmarks fund popular civic projects that boost a lawmaker’s re-election prospects. Others help large contractors or other companies that hire lobbyists and donate to campaigns.
    The bill ‘‘has completely gutted the earmark reform provisions we overwhelmingly passed in January,’’ said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He broke with several former allies on ethics matters, including Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
    ‘‘By any measure,’’ Feingold said in the debate, the bill ‘‘must be considered landmark legislation.’’
    Lawmakers seeking earmarks would have to publicize their plans 48 hours before a Senate vote. They would have to certify they have no direct financial interest in the items.
    McCain and others, however, said senators could circumvent the requirements by stating that prompt disclosure was not technically feasible, or by having the majority leader declare a bill earmark-free.
    Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it was ludicrous to suggest someone in his position would ‘‘cheat and lie’’ to hide earmarks.
    All 14 senators who voted against the bill were Republicans.
    Among those voting for it was GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, whose Alaska home was searched this week by federal agents probing alleged influence-peddling involving earmarks.
    Self-styled watchdog groups acknowledged that the bill was less stringent in several respects than were versions embraced by the House and Senate in January. But they hailed it as a major leap by an institution generally loath to police itself.
    Public Citizen said it amounts to ‘‘far-reaching lobbying and ethics reforms.’’
    Fred Wertheimer of Democracy21 called it ‘‘a great victory for the American people and a major accomplishment for Congress and its leaders.’’ He said it will give the public ‘‘comprehensive information about the multiple ways in which lobbyists provide campaign funds and other financial support’’ to lawmakers they seek to influence.
    The 107-page bill would require senators, and candidates for the Senate or White House, to pay full charter rates for trips on private planes. House members and candidates would be barred from accepting trips on private planes.
    Senators’ secret ‘‘holds’’ on legislation would be banned. Lawmakers convicted of bribery and other serious crimes would lose their congressional pensions.
    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave the measure a lukewarm endorsement.
    ‘‘This bill isn’t nearly as tough as it would have been on earmarks if Republicans had been involved in writing it,’’ McConnell said. ‘‘But weighing the good and the bad, many provisions are stronger than current law.’’
    The White House did not immediately say whether Bush will sign the bill.
    The legislation marks Congress’ most far-reaching reaction to scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy ‘‘Duke’’ Cunningham, R-Calif. Both are now in prison on corruption charges that in some cases involved congressional earmarks.
    Reform advocates said the bill’s main achievement involves greater disclosure of lobbyists who bundle campaign donations to lawmakers and political parties by soliciting checks from numerous people. Under current disclosure laws, their efforts often go undetected, but the recipients are well aware of the help they received.
    Earlier versions of the bill would have required lobbyist-bundlers, rather than the recipients, to disclose such contributions. They also had set the reporting threshold at $5,000 over six months, rather than $15,000.

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