WASHINGTON — A dispute with Republicans derailed ethics and lobbying legislation that Democrats had hoped would highlight their takeover of the Senate.
"I hope this is going to be just a bump in the road," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip. "We will give them another chance to think about this."
The bill, S. 1, 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. It failed yesterday to clear a legislative hurdle calling for 65 votes.
The Senate voted 51-46 after Republicans complained that Democrats blocked an amendment that would have given the president the authority, with the approval of Congress, to single out individual spending items in legislation for elimination. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon was one of two Republicans who voted with the Democrats.
Durbin said an agreement on the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., was possible but unlikely. If the ethics legislation is set aside, Durbin said, the Democrats could move to another priority, raising the minimum wage.
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," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid left the door open for another vote this afternoon, but getting the bill back on track would require resolution of what appeared to be an intractable dispute.
Democrats seized a narrow majority in the Senate, as well as the House, after campaigning on a "culture of corruption" when Congress was controlled by the Republicans. They 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, would have made it more difficult for former lawmakers to lobby their old colleagues, would have denied pensions to lawmakers convicted of serious crimes, required disclosure of the projects that lawmakers attach to bills and required more reporting by lobbyists on their activities.
Several groups opposed to the bill on free-speech grounds announced that they would hold a news conference today outlining their objections to the measure. Leaders of the groups — which include the American Civil Liberties Union, Traditional Values Coalition, Free Speech Coalition, National Right to Life and the American Target Advertising Association — said in a statement that the measure "would chill the constitutionally protected activity of many advocacy organizations."
Before the vote that deadlocked the bill, the Senate voted 88-9 to approve a Reid amendment that would require 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, had objected.
Two Republicans, Smith 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.