WASHINGTON (AP) – Congress could have used stronger ethics rules when former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, now in jail, was “ripping off the taxpayers of tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars,” Sen. John McCain said Wednesday.

Cunningham, R-Calif., sentenced to more than eight years after pleading guilty to accepting bribes, and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who on Wednesday received nearly six years in prison on conspiracy and wire fraud charges, were the inspiration for legislation passed by the Senate to overhaul lobbying law and ethics rules.

McCain, R-Ariz., cited the Cunningham case in arguing that a provision in the bill to rein in the proliferation of earmarks, or special projects that individual lawmakers insert in legislation, was insufficient.

“I think a lot of us would have liked to have known who sponsored the amendments that were put into the defense appropriations bills by former Rep. Cunningham, who is now in jail,” McCain said. “We would have been very well illuminated by the tens of millions of dollars that were somehow put into an appropriations bill in the middle of the night.”

Sunshine was the theme of the Senate bill, which is heavy on disclosing lawmaker contacts with lobbyists but has few new outright prohibitions or an independent office to police them.

The legislation would bar lawmakers from accepting gifts or meals from lobbyists or moving quickly to lobbying jobs after retiring. But they could still use corporate jets for the price of a first-class ticket and accept free lodging, travel and meals from nonlobbyists.

“Trust is the foundation of our democratic government,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said moments before the Senate voted 90-8 for the first lobbying overhaul bill in a decade. “With the public opinion of Congress at an all-time low, we have to do a better job of retaining that trust and that confidence.”

The House is now working on its version of the bill, which also is expected to emphasize greater disclosure of lobbying activities. House leaders are also pushing for a provision to restrict political groups that are permitted to accept donations of unlimited size.

Such groups have tended to favor Democrats, and Senate Democrats vowed to keep that out of the final bill.

Republicans and Democrats, in a rare show of bipartisanship, defended the bill against critics who said it didn’t go far enough. It’s a “measured response to this scandal,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., “ensuring that special interests cannot operate under a cloak of darkness.”

The bill would ban lobbyists from giving gifts or meals to lawmakers, and would require lobbyists to file quarterly electronic reports of their activities, up from the current two times a year.

Lobbyists would also have to disclose their contributions to officeholders and political fundraisers and their “grassroots” lobbying activities – helping clients to encourage the general public, through mass mailings or ads, to contact federal officials.

Senators would have to get pre-clearance from the ethics committee before embarking on privately funded trips and, when accepting rides of corporate jets, reveal who was on board.

Lawmakers and other senior executive branch officials would have to wait two years, up from the current one, before accepting jobs as lobbyists trying to influence the institution where they formerly served.

But lawmakers and clean government groups who saw the scandals as a golden opportunity to enact far-reaching reform expressed disappointment in the final product. The sponsors turned back efforts to ban privately funded trips or force lawmakers traveling by corporate jets to pay more expensive charter rates, rather than the first-class ticket prices they now pay.

And the Senate on Tuesday rejected an amendment that would have created an Office of Public Integrity to carry out investigations of charges of ethics violations in the Senate.

“I believe this bill was crippled without it,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “It’s not a law without an enforcement system.” Supporters of an independent office argued that the ethics committees, particularly in the highly partisan House, have proved incapable of investigating their own members.

The legislation also calls for several steps to make Senate procedures more open. Senators would have to identify the source and purpose of earmarks. And it includes a procedure for lawmakers to strip out earmarks that are not in original bills but are later attached to House-Senate conference reports.

Several senators, led by Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., and McCain, said the procedure for eliminating earmarks was too vague, and tried unsuccessfully to extend the definition to include federal as well as nonfederal projects.

Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense said 40 percent of the estimated 15,000 earmarks inserted in legislation last year were federal in nature.

The Senate bill also would end the practice of secret “holds,” where a single senator can block action on a bill or nomination without revealing that he or she is the source of the delay.

The eight senators voting against the measure were Democrats Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barack Obama of Illinois, and Republicans Tom Coburn and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and McCain. Not voting were West Virginia Democrats Robert Byrd and John D. Rockefeller.

The Senate lobbying reform bill is S. 2349.

On the Net:

Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov/

AP-ES-03-29-06 1908EST

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