Opposition Democrats expect to make gains in congressional elections later this year in part because of a corruption scandal involving once-powerful Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But Republicans are quick to point out that Abramoff gave money to Democrats as well.
Democrats see an opening in the developing scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
"The public says America is headed in the wrong direction and we Democrats stand for change, not only in trying to clean up this lobbying and corruption, but on the meat and potato issues like energy costs and prescription drugs and health care. And I think they are going to be tied together and it is going to be a good Democratic year in 2006, at least if things continue as they are now," said Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, on NBC's Meet the Press program.
Abramoff is at the center of a corruption scandal that could involve several lawmakers. Abramoff is a Republican who had strong links with Republicans in Congress. But he also gave money to several Democrats in hopes of obtaining help on issues of importance to his clients, including American Indian tribes.
Lobbying members of Congress is as old as the Republic and is protected by the U.S. Constitution. But prosecutors say in the case of Jack Abramoff, extensive lobbying quickly gave way to outright bribery.
Abramoff pleaded guilty earlier this month to corruption charges outlined by U.S. Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher.
"Abramoff had a congressman insert statements in the Congressional Record, had a congressman endorse a wireless telephone contract for the House of Representatives, had a congressman agree to seek passage of legislation to help Abramoff's clients," she said.
Former Republican House leader Tom Delay has not been implicated directly in the Abramoff scandal. But his links with the one-time high powered Washington lobbyist convinced many Republicans that Congressman Delay should not return as House Republican leader and he recently abandoned his bid to return to the leadership.
Republicans are also worried about the political impact of the Abramoff scandal on this year's congressional elections. But they point out that Jack Abramoff spread contributions around to a number of Democrats in an attempt to buy influence.
"I think he gave money to nearly 80 members in the United States Senate, so he was spreading it among Republicans and Democrats, and I am hopeful that the trail is followed and let us pursue this and let us pursue it aggressively so that we can show the people good, honest, clean government," said Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, on ABC's This Week program.
House Republicans are now in the process of choosing a permanent replacement for Tom Delay as their new leader, and the vote for a new majority leader could occur by the end of the month.
The leading contenders are acting majority leader Roy Blunt of Missouri and Ohio Congressman John Boehner, both conservatives.
Some Republicans are also pushing the idea of lobbying reform as they anticipate general public disgust over the Abramoff corruption scandal.
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says the lobbying scandal is likely to be a major issue in this year's elections even with Congressman Delay's decision to permanently step aside as House Republican leader.
"He was given a push and the push was delivered by Jack Abramoff. The guilty pleas by Abramoff made it very clear that scandal is going to be a preeminent issue in 2006," he said.
The Justice Department is investigating several lawmakers in connection with the Abramoff case. More revelations are expected in the months ahead and the political impact could hit both parties depending on which members of Congress are involved.
"Democrats are going to try to turn this into a partisan issue. The Republicans say no, that there are some Republicans involved but there are Democrats involved, and so this is really going to boil down to a nuts and bolts political argument," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes an independent political newsletter in Washington.
All 435 House seats will be at stake in November as well as one-third of the 100 Senate seats.
Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress since the 1994 elections.