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US House Approves Lobbying Legislation

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation, by 217 to 213 votes, majority Republicans describe as a big step in reforming the way members of Congress interact with lobbyists. But opposition Democrats accused Republicans of weakening the legislation and giving into special interest groups and lobbyists:

Republicans pushed lobbying reform to the top of their agenda in the wake of the scandal involving disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to federal charges stemming from an investigation into his ties with members of Congress, his representation of native American tribes, and also pleaded guilty to fraud charges in Florida.

For months, lawmakers braced for repercussions, even as House members were shaken by the fall from power of former Majority leader Tom DeLay, who was close to Abramoff, and is fighting criminal charges in Texas related to campaign financing.

There was also the guilty plea of former Republican Congressman Randy Cunningham, who admitted to charges of accepting bribes from defense contractors.

All of these formed the backdrop to debate on the House bill requiring lobbyists to file more frequent reports on their contacts with lawmakers, political contributions and gifts, and provides for fines and criminal penalties.

Congressman David Dreier played the key role in pushing the legislation, saying Americans are rightly outraged by recent scandals. "This legislation seeks to uphold the highest standards of integrity when it comes to Congress' interaction with outside groups," he said.

Democrats and private groups derided the House bill as a sham accusing Republicans of blocking proposals to strengthen the bill.

"Instead of allowing an open debate on our proposals, the [Republican] leadership proposed and decided that it would be business as usual," said Massachusetts Congressman Marty Meehan.

Among other things, the House bill fails to extend a one-year waiting period during which former lawmakers or staff are prohibited from lobbying Congress.

It contains only a temporary ban on privately-funded travel, in contrast to stronger measures advocated by Democrats.

Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays, who wanted stronger reforms, says he is disappointed in his party leadership. "I had high expectations in January that my [Republican] leadership really meant what they said," Mr. Shays said.

"Congress basically has been talking big, and they are about to do nothing. This retreat from ethics reform since January mirrors the behavior we have seen in Congress since frankly 1994 and only getting worse," said Chellie Pingree is president of the public interest group Common Cause.

Lobbying legislation already approved by the Senate contains stronger measures than the House version.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid Wednesday accused House Republicans of ignoring the wishes of Americans by refusing to include stronger reforms in the House bill.

House and Senate bills will have to be reconciled, a process that promises its own difficulties.