WASHINGTON -- Though Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., charged Sen. Rick Santorum with the task of spearheading Republican efforts to tighten rules on lawmakers' contact with lobbyists, Pennsylvania's junior senator is taking more of a backstage role as that legislation begins moving through the chamber this week.
"What I was asked by the leader to do was to start a process to see if we could get a bipartisan bill," Mr. Santorum said yesterday after the Senate Rule Committee voted 17-0 to approve new restrictions on members. "I understand the game here; I understand that they [Democrats] don't want Santorum's name on anything that's going to pass. So I'm not worried about getting my name on a bill that's going to pass; I'm worried about making sure we do the right thing from an ethics point of view."
Since January, Mr. Santorum has helped organize more than a half-dozen meetings with Senate colleagues to discuss how Congress could address the public's discomfort with the relationships between lobbyists and members. The outcry came over the actions of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.
But at this point, Mr. Santorum is not planning to author and try to promote his own lobbying-reform legislation. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott credited Mr. Santorum with helping develop the legislation that was unanimously approved by Mr. Lott's committee yesterday. The measure includes more public disclosure of members' travel and meals paid for by lobbyists as well as new restrictions on members' ability to insert their pet spending projects, known as "earmarks," into major bills without sufficient vetting.
But the bill approved in Mr. Lott's panel is sponsored by the chairman along with Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
Next week, the full Senate is expected to consider the Lott-Dodd measure as well as a second, more expansive lobbying bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., which will be reshaped tomorrow by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expected his chamber to have its version of lobbying legislation ready within the next few weeks. It may include more restrictive changes, including a temporary ban on private travel.
Mr. Santorum's decision to step back from what was originally envisioned as a prominent leadership role on the lobbying issue is the latest illustration of difficulties he faces as he runs for re-election.
When Mr. Santorum announced in January that he had been chosen as the Republicans' point man on lobbying reform, his new role seemed only to inflame the controversy over his own relationship with the lobbying community.
The campaign of his leading Democratic opponent, Pennsylvania state Treasurer Robert P. Casey and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials ratcheted up their criticism of his weekly roundtables with lobbyists and his involvement in his party leadership's efforts to have more Republicans hired at the top lobbying firms that line Washington's K Street.
Recently, the Casey campaign has criticized spending by Mr. Santorum's leadership political action committee and a charity he founded and now serves as chairman.
In a hostile political climate, Mr. Santorum acknowledged yesterday that it would be difficult to gain Senate approval for lobbying legislation he had authored.
Here are some of the highlights of the Senate Rules Committee measure approved yesterday:
It would restrict lawmakers' ability to tuck earmarks, those parochial spending projects, into must-pass spending bills. For the first time, lawmakers would be required to disclose which projects they are sponsoring. The legislative wording that would allocate the funds -- which have added up to billions of dollars each year -- must be available for Senate and public review on a new Web site 24 hours before the Senate vote. Also, any member could ask for a full-Senate vote on whether to strike a particular project from a bill; if that happened, the sponsoring member would need support from 59 other members to keep his or her earmark in the bill.
Lawmakers' trips paid for by third parties, such as non-profit organizations, would need to be pre-approved by the Ethics Committee. Currently, members alert that panel to their plans but are not required to seek its permission.
Lawmakers' and Senate staff trips could have only a "minimal or no recreational component," a change intended to bar junkets such as the well-publicized golf outing to Scotland that Mr. Abramoff arranged for several lawmakers and staff members through a non-profit group.
Within 30 days of returning, lawmakers or staff members would be required to provide a detailed description of all meetings, tours and activities that occurred to the ethics committee, the secretary of the Senate and on their official Web sites. But members could opt not to post the information if they believed that it would "jeopardize the safety of an individual or adversely affect national security."
If a lobbyist paid for the meal of a lawmaker or someone on the member's staff, the lawmaker would be required to post notice of that event on his or her official Web site within 15 days, providing details about how much the cost and who picked up the check.
If a lawmaker flew on chartered aircraft -- such as a plane owned by major U.S. firms that now frequently offer them their jets at the cost of only a first-class commercial ticket -- the member would be required to file more specific reports disclosing the aircraft's owner and the names of accompanying passengers.