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updated 1/17/2007 11:51:37 PM ET 2007-01-18T04:51:37

Democrats’ hopes of starting off their control of the Senate with a far-reaching commitment to ethics reform received a painful jolt Wednesday, their ethics and lobbying legislation sidetracked by a dispute with Republicans.

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Democrats failed to clear a crucial legislative hurdle when the Senate voted 51-46 to proceed with the bill that would have reduced the influence of lobbyists in shaping legislation and forced lawmakers to be more open about the pet projects they slip into legislation. Sixty-five votes were needed to advance the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left the door open for another vote on the issue Thursday afternoon, but getting the bill back on track would require resolution of what appeared to be an intractable dispute.

Republicans voted against the motion to proceed because they were upset that Democrats were blocking an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., that would have given the president authority, with the approval of Congress, to single out individual spending items in legislation for elimination.

“I hope this is going to be just a bump in the road,” said Democratic Whip Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He said coming to an agreement on the Gregg proposal was possible but unlikely.

“We will give them another chance to think about this,” Durbin said in an interview. He said that if the ethics legislation is set aside, the Democrats could move to another priority, raising the minimum wage. But that depended on getting the consent of Republicans to bring up the minimum wage bill, which is linked to tax breaks for small businesses.

Both parties blamed the other for the temporary demise of what they hailed, when debate on the legislation started a week ago, as a model for bipartisan cooperation.

“It’s a terribly unfortunate day for this body,” Reid said.

‘Culture of corruption’
Democrats, who seized a narrow majority in the Senate, as well as the House, after campaigning on the “culture of corruption” when Congress was controlled by the Republicans, had promised to start off with a major effort to break the links between lawmakers and lobbyists and reassure voters of the integrity of members of Congress.

The legislation would have barred lawmakers from accepting gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists, made it more difficult for former lawmakers to lobby their old colleagues, denied pensions to lawmakers convicted of serious crimes, required more reporting by lobbyists on their activities and required disclosure of the pet projects lawmakers insert into legislation.

Before the vote that deadlocked the bill, the Senate voted 88-9 to approve a Reid amendment that would have required senators who catch rides on corporate jets to pay charter rates. Now they reimburse jet owners with the far cheaper equivalent of a first-class ticket.

The bill was jointly sponsored by Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

McConnell noted that a similar ethics bill passed the Senate last year by a 90-8 vote and said he hoped, despite the deadlock, that “we can continue to work on a path toward finishing the underlying bill.”

He also pointed out that, before coming to a final vote on the bill last year, Democrats had used a similar procedural tactic to win a vote on a proposal they wanted considered.

Democrats said the Gregg proposal was not relevant to the ethics bill, and Republicans in turn said they would not vote to proceed with the bill unless Gregg’s proposal came to a vote.

“The new majority party has been very vocal about its commitment to fiscal responsibility and spending restraint,” Gregg said. “Yet it seems to be dragging its feet when it comes time to put those words into action.”

Reid and Gregg were close to an agreement under which the line-item veto proposal would come to the floor this spring, but Reid said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a staunch opponent of ceding any legislative control over the purse to the president, objected.

Byrd: ‘I will not blink’
Gregg insisted that his proposal was different from a past line-item act that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional. Under the former law, Congress needed a two-thirds vote to override a presidential veto of certain spending items, but his bill would require Congress to affirm presidential decisions by a majority vote.

But Byrd, waving his copy of the Constitution, said the Senate should not be blackmailed into giving up its authority. “I will not blink,” he said.

Two Republicans, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, voted with the Democrats and two independents. Reid, using a parliamentary tactic that will allow him to bring up the vote again, was the only Democrat voting against proceeding on the bill. Three senators, Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., did not vote.

The bill is S.1

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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