Congress adopts ethics, lobbying rules

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers last week overwhelmingly approved ethics and lobbying rules crafted in response to corruption scandals that beset Congress a year ago.

The Senate voted 83-14 and the House 411-8 on legislation Democrats said was their top priority when they took control of Congress this year.

Lawmakers passed ethics reform as well as a multi- billion-dollar expansion of a child health insurance program amid a flurry of activity ahead of their traditional August recess.

The ethics bill bans lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists or their clients and forces elected officials and presidential candidates to pay the full charter rate for trips on noncommercial planes.

It sets new guidelines for public disclosure of individual projects, or earmarks, 48 hours before a vote. Earmark sponsors would be required to declare they have no financial stake in the project.

Opponents said the bill didn’t go far enough toward providing full earmark disclosure.

Democrats lauded the bill as the most significant ethics overhaul in a generation, spurred by scandals last year that sent two congressmen and lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted for the ethics bill. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., voted against it.

Reps. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Dean Heller and Jon Porter, both R-Nev., all voted for it in the House.

In addition to the gift and earmark restrictions, the bill prohibits senators from taking lobbying jobs until two years after they leave office. The window for House members would be one year.

It would also require lawmakers to name lobbyists who raise more than $15,000 for them from different sources over a six-month period.

CONGRESS VOTES TO EXPAND CHILDREN’S HEALTH PROGRAM

Despite the threat of a presidential veto, both houses voted to reauthorize and expand the decade-old State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The Senate authorized a $35 billion expansion for the program funded by a 61 cent per pack cigarette tax increase.

The broader expansion in the House would cost $50 billion paid for by cuts to Medicare managed care plans and a tobacco tax increase.

Both chambers must negotiate the final version of the bill.

The House voted 225-204 to expand the program. The largely party-line vote would not be enough to override a presidential veto.

The Senate vote was 83-14.

Set to expire Sept. 30, SCHIP covers about 6 million children nationwide whose families are not eligible for Medicaid but cannot afford private health insurance.

Opponents of the expansion said it would drive middle-class families covered by private insurance companies into a government program. That would signal a step toward socialized medicine, they said.

President Bush has proposed a $5 billion expansion, saying that money would cover children eligible but not currently enrolled in the program.

Reid voted for the Senate bill. Ensign voted against it.

Berkley voted for the House bill. Heller and Porter were against it.

During debate, the Senate turned away 60-36 a proposal by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to fund a $50 billion SCHIP expansion.

Kerry said the additional money would be used to pay bonuses to states that enroll more children and would allow people up to age 21 to be enrolled in the program.

He proposed raising income taxes for people making more than $1 million to pay for the expansion.

Reid voted for Kerry’s amendment. Ensign voted against it.

HOUSE APPROVES AGRICULTURE BILL AFTER GOP WALKOUT

The House voted 237-18 to pass a $90 billion agriculture spending bill after Republicans stormed off the House floor to protest the outcome of a vote to deny some federal benefits to illegal immigrants.

Republicans chanted “shame, shame, shame” after Rep. Michael McNulty, D-N.Y., gaveled to a close a vote on the measure, saying it failed on a 214-214 tie. They walked out of the chamber when McNulty allowed a few Democrats to switch their votes and the margin changed to 216-212, saying the maneuver was unfair.

A total of 165 Republicans, including Heller, were not in the chamber to vote on the agriculture spending measure.

Berkley voted for the bill. Porter voted “present.”

Heller and Porter supported the legislation to prevent illegal immigrants from getting benefits such as food stamps and housing assistance. Berkley was against it.

HOUSE OKS MORE REST TIME FOR TROOPS BETWEEN DEPLOYMENTS

In a swipe against President Bush’s war strategy, the House voted 229-194 to require more rest for troops between deployments in Iraq.

The bill mandates that active duty soldiers have rest periods as least equal to the time they were deployed before they can return to a war zone. Rest time for National Guard and Reserve troops would be three times as long as deployment time under the measure.

The Senate rejected a similar bill last month.

Critics said the bill was a backhanded attempt to end the war and that Congress should not be micromanaging American troops.

Supporters said troops are overextended.

Berkley voted for required rest time. Heller and Porter voted against the measure.

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