After saying in January that he would end his regular meetings with lobbyists, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), the third-ranking GOP leader in the Senate, has continued to meet with many of the same lobbyists at the same time and on the same day of the week.
Santorum, whose ties to Washington lobbyists have been criticized by his Democratic challenger, suspended his biweekly encounters on Jan. 30. His decision came as Democrats named him as their top target in November's Senate races, and after the guilty plea of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff to charges of conspiring to corrupt public officials.
But in the month since his announcement, Santorum has held two meetings attended by the same core group of lobbyists, and has used the sessions to appeal for campaign aid, according to participants. Both of those meetings were convened at the same time as the previous meetings -- 8:30 a.m. -- on the same day of the week -- Tuesday -- and they lasted for about as long as the earlier meetings -- one hour.
Instead of being held in the Capitol, however, the recent meetings were conducted nearby. The first was held about three blocks away, at the headquarters of National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the second was held around the corner from that building, at the Heritage Foundation.
The Capitol meetings had been convened to advance the GOP's cause by enlisting lobbyists to back its agenda. The meetings were largely information exchanges during which Santorum and other Republicans gave speeches and fielded questions from the assembled lobbyists.
Democrats had lambasted Santorum's Capitol meetings in large part because, at the end of most of them, a representative of the Republican National Committee distributed lists of Washington-based lobbying job openings, and participants often discussed which GOP congressional aides and former lawmakers might be best suited for those jobs.
After the outcry by Democrats and others, Santorum announced that the lists would no longer be distributed at the meetings, and then he canceled the meetings entirely.
Now, his aides said, he has resumed the meetings with lobbyists. Their purpose is to help Santorum's reelection effort, but many of the same topics other than jobs are discussed, aides and participants said.
Mark Rodgers, staff director of the Senate Republican Conference, said that the old meetings had been sponsored by the conference, had sometimes included other lawmakers, and had been meant to get out the GOP message to interested groups in Washington. The recent meetings were largely about how the lobbyists and other attendees could help Santorum's fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts in Pennsylvania, Rodgers said.
As for the meetings' time and locations, he said: "It happens to be convenient on the boss's schedule."
Rodgers said the new meetings have added 20 to 30 people to their invitation lists, while retaining from the old list 40 of the 70 or so lobbyists who had been regularly invited.
Santorum is considered the Senate Republicans' most vulnerable incumbent. Democrats recruited Pennsylvania Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., the son of a former governor, to challenge him this fall, and recent polls show Casey ahead.
Senate Republicans, eager to help Santorum, put him in charge of the party's efforts on lobbying changes, although he was soon overshadowed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the actions of two Senate committees. Democrats note that Santorum's campaign has received more money from lobbyists than any other congressional candidacy thus far in the 2006 election cycle.
The White House is also trying to help Santorum. On Tuesday night, presidential adviser Karl Rove attended a Santorum fundraiser at the Washington home of Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). Individuals and representatives of political action committees that contributed $5,000 could attend a special reception and photo opportunity with the star guests.
Supporters call Santorum a principled conservative and an underrated campaigner, and many credit him with rescuing moderate Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) when he was challenged from the political right in the 2004 GOP primary. Opponents call Santorum an opportunist who pushes the limit on using campaign funds.
Foes question Santorum's use of his leadership PAC, America's Foundation, which has paid for at least 160 small purchases at coffee shops near Santorum's Leesburg home, as well as for fast-food meals and purchases at hardware and book stores.
Santorum campaign spokeswoman Virginia Davis said all the expenditures were legitimate. Leadership PACs "can be expensive to maintain," she said, and Santorum has distributed through it more than $3 million to GOP candidates since 2001.
Participants in the most recent meeting of lobbyists, on Tuesday, said that all but a few of the people who attended were mainstays of the old Capitol gatherings.
‘The usual suspects’
One lobbyist called the attendees "the usual suspects" and said they were among the city's best-known lobbyists whose firms represent financial services, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, oil production and tobacco companies. The lobbyist added: "There were two or three people from his [Santorum's] campaign who didn't go to meetings at the Capitol. I don't think beyond that that I recognized anybody new."
In addition, the participating lobbyists and Rodgers said that part of the discussion at the Tuesday meeting was reminiscent of the gatherings at the Capitol. Santorum discussed the Republican agenda and devoted plenty of time on lobbying changes -- a topic of personal interest to the attendees. The meeting was held one day before the Senate took up legislation meant to crack down on lobbyists and their relationships with lawmakers.
"We're going to formalize this [meeting] into a campaign briefing about once a month," Rodgers said. "This will grow with people who are committed to Rick's campaign."