updated 4/27/2006 9:49:19 PM ET 2006-04-28T01:49:19

A Republican-backed lobbying overhaul bill narrowly survived Thursday, averting what would have been a stunning blow to the party’s drive to repair the scandal-tarnished reputation of Congress before the fall elections.

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The 216-207 House vote to advance debate on the bill came after GOP leaders spent hours urging their own members not to abandon them on the legislation. The turning point came when they persuaded Republican members of the Appropriations Committee to go along with measures in the bill to limit earmarks, or special interest projects.

In the end 12 Republicans, mostly lawmakers who thought the bill was too weak, voted against it. Democrats were unanimous in opposition.

Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., the main sponsor of the bill, said the bill would add new transparency to lawmaker-lobbyist relations. “What we are doing here today is another indication of our strong commitment to the issue of reform.”

Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of the Republicans voting against the resolution, disagreed. “We’re losing our moral authority to lead this place,” said Shays, who like Democrats, objected to procedures that barred them from offering amendments they said would have strengthened a weak bill.

The rejected amendments included imposing a ban on gifts from lobbyists, creating a new office to oversee ethics violations in the House, and making retiring lawmakers wait longer before becoming lobbyists.

Boehner laments glacial change
Majority Leader John Boehner said the House would return to the bill next Tuesday. “Changing anything here in Washington is almost impossible,” the Ohio Republican said. “The status quo is a powerful force.”

The debate Thursday followed months of negotiations to craft a lobbying overhaul bill in the wake of the scandals generated by disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif.

The most prominent issue during the day was earmarks, the pet projects that find their way into larger bills, often at the urging of lobbyists. Republican fiscal conservatives demanded greater disclosure of earmark sponsors, while members of the Appropriations Committee objected that the new disclosure rules applied only to appropriation bills, not policy and tax bills.

Earlier this month GOP leaders were unable to deliver on a $2.8 trillion budget blueprint because of a similar struggle between conservatives and the Appropriations Committee over budget reforms.

‘Moment of truth’ for conservatives
“After months of scandal and years of deficit spending, we have come to a moment of truth,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a leader of the conservatives. “We will show today who in this body is committed to reform and who is not.”

“This is the acid test today,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a leading opponent of earmarks.

Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said it wasn’t until five minutes before the vote that he learned that Appropriations Committee leaders would go along with a leadership promise to extend the earmark provisions to all committees when the House and Senate negotiate a final version of the bill.

GOP leaders brought the lobbying bill to the floor Thursday morning but then abruptly pulled it because of the earmarks dispute. They resumed debate four hours later after a two-hour closed-door meeting with the party rank-and-file.

“Virtually everyone seems to be unhappy with some aspect of this,” Dreier said Wednesday. He has overseen the lobbying issue since last January when the House, reacting to the Abramoff scandal, took the initial step of banning members-turned-lobbyists from the House floor and gym.

Democratic leader weighs in
As Republican leaders huddled to try to salvage the bill, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized their efforts.

“This is a bill they thought they could get away with,” Pelosi told a press conference. “It’s a ruse, and I think they thought it was worth a try. But people are seeing through it, and their members are hearing from the public.”

The House bill requires lobbyists to file quarterly reports on their activities, up from the current twice-a-year reports; suspends all privately funded travel through the end of the year; requires appropriations bills to list earmarks; and takes away the retirement benefits of lawmakers convicted of corruption-related crimes.

The Senate bill, passed last month on a 90-8 vote, goes further in banning gifts and meals from lobbyists. It also requires that lobbyists report on grass-roots lobbying involving the use of phone calls and ads to encourage the public to contact their lawmakers, and extends to two years, up from the current one, the waiting period before a former lawmaker can take a job lobbying Congress.

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