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US Congress Picks Up Speed on Lobbying Reform

Stung by the scandal involving former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, congressional Republicans have announced draft initiatives they say will lead to legislation that would place tighter legal constraints on lobbyists and members of Congress.

Amid continuing repercussions from the Abramoff corruption probe, majority Republicans are taking steps to avert further political damage.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert says lobbying reform will be at the top of a very busy agenda when the House returns to work later this month.

"I have been deeply disturbed by those who have broken the rules of the House and in some instances have pleaded guilty to breaking the law," said Mr. Hastert. "As speaker of the House, I want to make sure one thing is clear. It is not acceptable for anyone to break the rules of the House or the law, and if they, have they should be held to account."

House Republicans say they want a final lobbying reform bill ready for House debate by the end of February.

One proposed change would ban privately sponsored travel by lawmakers, about which there has been long-running debate, and which is a key part of the federal investigation into Mr. Abramoff's activities.

Monday, Mr. Hastert accepted the temporary resignation from a key House committee of Congressman Bob Ney, who with former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay is among the most visible House members whose name has come up in the federal corruption probe.

Mr. Ney was implicated by former lobbyist Abramoff, who in pleading guilty to felony charges last month said the lawmaker benefited from campaign donations, free travel and entertainment in exchange for certain "official acts."

Congressman Ney has denied doing anything wrong, but faced pressure from Republican leaders to relinquish his committee position.

Former Majority Leader DeLay stepped down last year, and is facing trial in Texas on charges of violating campaign finance laws. He, and at least one former close aide, also had close ties to Jack Abramoff.

House Republicans are coordinating with the Senate, where John McCain is sponsoring one major proposal. The Arizona senator has made it clear that he wants to end abuses by lobbyists, but does not believe lobbying should be banned.

"Every citizen has the right to petition their government," he said. "We are not trying to, nor will we, infringe on [violate] that fundamental right that every citizen has in this country, whether they are paid or not paid. That is why we are emphasizing transparency and disclosure as the primary way of attempting to address this issue."

Senator McCain says he will work to consolidate various draft lobbying reform bills in the Senate, calling bipartisan cooperation critical to the success of any final bill.

Other changes proposed or suggested include stricter rules on disclosing contacts with lobbyists, eliminating access to the House or Senate chambers by former members, and stronger rules on accepting gifts.

In recent years, Democrats in the Republican-controlled House have had little success pushing their own lobbying reform proposals to the front of the legislative agenda.

House and Senate Democratic Leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid hold a news conference Wednesday to announce what they call a more comprehensive lobbying reform proposal.

That is part of a wider strategy of focusing on key issues Democrats hope will help them regain control of Congress in the November mid-term legislative elections.