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Press Conference with Senate Democrat Leaders; Subject: Ethics Reform Legislation

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Location: Washington D.C.


PRESS CONFERENCE WITH SENATE DEMOCRAT LEADERS
SUBJECT: ETHICS REFORM LEGISLATION
PARTICIPANTS: SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV); SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL); SENATOR RUSSELL FEINGOLD (D-WI); SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY); SENATOR PATTY MURRAY (D-WA); SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA); AND SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL)

SEN. REID: I had a great presentation prepared, but as I stepped up here, I was given something that was released this morning from the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Public Citizen, US PIRG. And here is what they said, among other things:

"No one should be confused about what happened yesterday in the Senate on ethics and lobbying reform legislation. Forty-five Republican senators voted to obstruct and kill the strongest ethic and lobbying reform legislation since the Watergate scandals of three decades ago. Unless Senate Republicans who profess to support ethics and lobbying reform switch their votes, they will be responsible for killing the very reforms they claim to support and for maintaining the corrupting practice that played a central role in the Abramoff lobbying scandals in Congress. No credence at all should be give to the argument offered yesterday by Senate Republicans that the American people must be denied strong new ethics rules and lobbying (laws) unless they get to vote on an amendment unrelated to the bill that deals with the line-item veto. No senator can credibly justify to the American people killing ethics and lobbying reform and thereby preserving corrupt practices in the Senate in the name of pursuing a line-item veto."

Senator Durbin?

SEN. DURBIN: I think all of us understand this is Senate Bill 1. This is our first priority. Before we can get down to the people's business on so many important issues, we have to do everything in our power to restore the integrity of the Senate and the confidence of the American people in this institution.

And that's why we've called ethics reform as the first measure.

I'm happy that it was a bipartisan measure, that Senator McConnell joined Senator Reid in sponsoring virtually every major piece of this. I'm happy that we've entertained and accepted on a bipartisan basis many important amendments on the floor of the United States Senate. But I'm really disappointed that we haven't been able to seize this moment in history. In the history of the United States Senate, there are few occasions when we can really step forward on a bipartisan basis for reform. This was the moment. And unfortunately, the decision of the Republican leadership yesterday to kill this ethics bill over an unrelated issue is transparent. Clearly, any excuse will do for them to bring down an ethics reform bill.

We stand ready. We'll continue to work. We want to move forward. We want to pass this ethics reform. But the Republicans have to decide that this is important to them. And I hope that they'll step forward at this point and join us, give us the votes to pass cloture so we can return and pass this bill quickly.

SEN. REID: Senator Schumer.

SEN. SCHUMER: If you want the true intentions of the Republican leadership, just ask people how long they've been talking about line- item veto. Did they sit down two, three weeks ago and say, "We have to have line-item veto as part of this"? No. They just pulled the line-item veto rabbit out of a hat as an attempt to stop ethics reform, which they don't want. And so make no mistake about it. The good-ethics train was moving swiftly right down the tracks until the Republicans stopped it, putting the line-item veto log in its path.

The bottom line is very simple. Senator Reid, the Democrats here in the Senate, have made ethics reform our number-one issue. We did it because it's substantively correct and we did it because it was one of the two top issues that the voters asked us to accomplish in the November elections. And now we are finding that the Republican majority just doesn't want it. They can't say they don't want it, and so instead, they say, "We want line-item veto." Well, Senator Reid's willing to give them a vote on line-item veto, but they can't use it to stop ethics reform.

Now, make no mistake about it. We're going to try in every way we can to get ethics reform accomplished.

But I think that what this maneuver shows is that the Republican leadership hasn't learned the lessons of the 2006 elections. We hope they learn them soon.

SEN. REID: Senator Murray?

SEN. MURRAY: Well, I think the American people sent us a pretty loud message in November by demanding an end to the culture of corruption and an end to the partisan political games that we saw so much in the Republican majority, and they demanded a new era of cooperation and service to the best interests of all of us. They sent us here with a mandate to clean up the mess and to work together to make progress for our country.

All of us who are standing here today heard that message loud and clear. Our leader has worked with the Republican leader to bring a strong ethics reform package to the floor of the Senate as the first piece of legislation in this Congress. For nearly two weeks we have worked very hard together in an effort to end the culture of corruption that the Republicans let fester for too long in this country. Through amendments on the floor, we've made progress on making it even stronger.

But last night what we saw was the Senate Republicans, in a grand act of ethics hypocrisy, shatter the new culture of cooperation in an attempt to kill real reform. And I don't believe the American people are going to stand for that. When I go home to my state of Washington, I hear over and over again from voter after voter: stop the fighting, end the bickering, get something done. They want a new direction, they want a direction of hope and opportunity, and they don't want to see the old tricks again.

Unfortunately, today what we saw -- or last night -- was Senate Republicans trying to give people more of what we've seen before -- more partisanship, more in-fighting, more corruption. And what's most disturbing to me is that this bill, just under a year ago, was good enough for them. We passed it 90 to 8. It was good enough for them then, it was good enough for them a few weeks ago when it was introduced, and it was good enough for them last week when the Senate minority leader said, and I quote, "This bill essentially was what passed the Senate last year 90 to 8. The Senate is ready to act or close to ready to finish this important piece of legislation. We were last year. But we are going to pass this next week with an overwhelming bipartisan vote."

But now, what was good enough for senators -- 90 senators last year, and the minority leader just a week ago, is now, magically, not enough.

I don't think the American people are going to stand for this kind of game. The Republicans may want to bring a premature end to the new culture of cooperation by killing this ethics reform, but we are going to remain vigilant in our pursuit of a new direction for this country.

SEN. REID: Let me introduce at once the three who will finish our press conference.

First of all, Russ Feingold. Senator Feingold, from the minute he stepped into the Senate, has been the face of what ethics and lobbying reform should be. I admire and respect what he has done. The country admires and respects what he has done. He has been stalwart in moving forward in this legislation. I told him today -- and I believe this -- this is not the most significant legislation since Watergate; it's the most significant legislation dealing with ethics and lobbying reform that we've had in the history of this country.

So I'm happy that Russ is here with us.

Senator Feinstein is the new chair of the Rules Committee. She's done an outstanding job managing this very, very difficult bill. I so admire what she's done. She's acknowledged that that small committee, with lots of jurisdiction, is going to have to do a lot of things. For example, one of the things she's agreed to do is take a look at campaign finance in all its forms, to see what needs to be done to improve it. And there are -- things need to be done to improve that.

She's agreed to take a look at the outside ethics organizations, see if that's necessary and required.

And finally, Senator Obama. I chose personally Senator Obama last year to work on ethics and lobbying reform, and he's done a wonderful job. He's stepped forward. He's been a leader with Senator Feingold on this issue. And I admire and respect his stalwartness in moving forward on this.

So, Senator Feingold, Senator Feinstein and Senator Obama.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Thank you, Harry.

I'm in my 25th year as a legislator, and I've seen a lot of games played. But this stunt last night ranks way up there and one of the worst ones I've ever seen.

I have been working in a bipartisan way on lobbying ethics reform for years. I introduced the first comprehensive reform bill on this topic in the Senate in July 2005.

The line-item veto has never been a part of these discussions whatsoever. It's never been part of any reform measure that's been introduced or proposed. Even as recently as December, I was at this podium with my colleagues, Republican colleagues and others, in a bipartisan press conference, where those present were specific and talked about this issue and pledged to push for the strongest bill possible, and guess what. The issue of the line-item veto never even came up with that group.

It is just incomprehensible that some senators are holding up this bill over the line-item veto, and I say that as someone who not only supports the concept of a line-item veto but voted for Senator McCain's line-item veto that passed and was signed into law and was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1990s.

But I absolutely don't believe that we should debating it on this bill. It deserves much more careful consideration than we could get it here, and it has nothing to do with this important bill at all. Further, we are just -- we are in the second week of the session. Senator Reid has indicated a willingness to debate line-item veto proposals in the future. There's just no reason for the kind of tactics that were used by the Republicans last night.

So all I can conclude is that there are senators who are using this as a ploy to bring down the best lobbying and ethics reform bill that the Senate has ever had before it.

As Senator Reid indicated -- and he's a big part of the reason why it's true -- we have made great progress on this issue. We cannot give up. Sooner or later, those who are resisting finishing this bill will come to their senses and realize that the American people will see through these parliamentary maneuverings. They want results. This Senate, under the leadership of Senator Reid, is going to give it to them. We are going to keep pressing and break this filibuster if we need to, and I hope and expect that the leader will regularly return to the bill until we get the job done, and we will all support him strongly in those efforts.

SEN. REID: Dianne?

SEN. FEINSTEIN: Thank you.

Well, let me just say as the manager of the bill that I'm really profoundly disappointed. I had the view that this was going to move and move quickly.

First of all, it's been said because we voted on it in the main two years ago, voted 90 to 8; second of all, because of the campaign, which has been well spelled-out to you; and third of all, because there was -- this was a new era of bipartisan cooperation -- it's my understanding that the leaders have met, and it's my understanding that this bill in the main was to conform to what we did before. It was enriched and strengthened by an amendment that the leader did, by many amendments made by Republicans, but that we were going to stay within the scope of the bill that we had passed so that we knew we could get it done.

Line-item veto was never discussed. Like Senator Feingold, I supported the old line-item veto. As you know, it went to the Supreme Court.

It was invalidated because of separation of powers arguments. I think at the very least a line-item veto of this nature, 26 pages long and more comprehensive than ever seen before, ought to go to the Judiciary Committee. Let's take a look at what constitutional issues, in fact, it does raise. The leader is prepared to make an accommodation to find a way for it to come up before the body at a later time, yet not as part of this bill, where it so complicates the mission of this bill.

As manager of the bill, I have tried to keep other amendments off. I have resisted making amendments myself, which were out of the scope of the bill because of the greater mission of producing this major bill asked for by the American people. So I am really disappointed.

Let me say that the House has no bill at this time. Therefore, the House is going to have to pass a bill. We want to get to conference on a bill. We're not going to be able to get to conference and provide the American people with an answer within the next six months if we can't get this bill done.

So my hope is that there will be a reconsideration on the Republican side, that saner minds will prevail, and that we will be able at a later time to succeed in a motion to close off debate. It is really important, it should be done, and really the time has come to do it. The line-item veto, in my view, is a subterfuge.

SEN. REID: Senator Obama.

SEN. OBAMA: Let me just underscore a couple of points that have been already been made, and I don't want to belabor them.

The American people in November I think sent a strong message, saying they want Congress to clean up its act. We had an ethics provision last year that I thought made progress, but didn't go far enough. I actually voted against it, as did Senator Feingold. We came back this year under Harry Reid's leadership, and he said to us, "We want you to be involved in this process, we are going to have an open amendment process, we're going to be able to present amendments to strengthen the core of this bill," and he was true to his word.

And it hasn't always been easy. I mean, there are some difficult provisions that we had to work through even in our own caucus. And people took some very tough votes, Harry Reid taking up the corporate jet issue, which is tough for a lot of members of our caucus. We had lengthy debates about disclosure on bundling. And at each juncture, Harry Reid, Dianne Feinstein, the leadership, the folks managing this bill made a determination that this was so important to the American people that despite misgivings or disputes or arguments, that we had to go forward.

And for us to have gone this far and to have made such significant progress so that we now have a bill that everybody could be proud of, for that to be jettisoned just as a consequence of these kinds of procedural maneuverings, I think is a sad day in Washington.

And I am convinced that if the American people know what's going on, they will not stand for it. So my hope is, is that everybody who is here helps to publicize what's happened and that enough fire is put under the feet of those who are resisting these moves that we can actually go ahead and make progress, get this bill passed, confer with the House, get a bill on the president's desk and move forward to operate in the kind of government that the American people are looking for. And until that time, I think we have to continue to keep up the pressure.

And I'm very proud of Harry Reid and the rest of the leadership for being willing to step up. It's time now for the other side to step up and do the same.

SEN. REID: Questions?

Q Senator Reid, in a few hours, Leader Pelosi and other House Democrats are going to have a press conference to celebrate what they are going to describe as the success of the Democrats' 100-hours agenda. Considering that lobbying and ethics reform, the first piece of legislation they've passed, considering (the fate ?) that it now faces here in the Senate, what do you think that says to the rest of the rest of the Democrats -- House Democrats' 100-hours agenda? What do you think -- (off mike) -- and of that legislation stands of getting through unscathed -- (off mike)?

SEN. REID: I don't want to disagree with you, but they didn't pass lobbying/ethics reform. They have not said they had.

They changed some rules in the House. They're going to take up lobbying/ethics reform at a later time.

But we all know that the House can move very quickly. The party that's in control controls the Rules Committee and things move very quickly.

We have an agenda here we're going to move forward on. We're going to keep working on ethics and lobbying reform. We're going to go to a minimum wage. We're going to then have a debate on the Iraq resolution. We're then going to have a debate on what we should do about stem cells in this country, giving hopes to millions. We're going to move there to have Medicare be able to negotiate for lower prices for drugs. So I think we have an aggressive agenda.

But as I've said before, and I say to you, the Senate was set up by the Founding Fathers not to be very efficient, but to be very deliberative. And deliberative, in some people's mind, means slow. We're working long hours here, long weeks. We're working our way through that. But we're going to accomplish a lot. We're not going to be a "do nothing" Congress, let's put it that way.

Q Senator Reid?

SEN. REID: Yes.

Q Why don't you just simply bring up the line-item veto bill, raise a point of order and take a vote?

SEN. REID: Because -- because a point of order has unlimited debate. So that -- all due respect to you -- that won't work. It's unlimited debate.

Line-item veto has nothing to do with this legislation. You've heard it from every member that's been up here. We're willing to do work on line-item veto, but let's do it in ordinary course. This is an effort, as you've heard from Common Cause and all their colleagues and other organizations, to thwart, to defeat, to ruin this very good piece of legislation we have. The Republicans obviously don't like this bill, and this is their way of having you folks try to take the bait.

Q (Off mike) -- but is there a way that you could start (a track ?) to do what Senator Feinstein said, deal with this -- (inaudible) -- in a spirit of whatever --

SEN. REID: Of course, we've offered that. We want to work with them. Some people know the rules better than I do in the Senate. Maybe. (Laughter.) But I -- but I think we have tried very, very hard to work something out with them.

I want everyone here to also understand what happened last night. Senator Byrd's gotten the blame for this. It's not Senator Byrd's fault. He didn't agree to the time, but -- as to when we would do this. But they kept changing the rules on me. "Okay. Let's do it late in March before the Easter recess, but also let's take it to conference, automatically it goes to conference." That isn't how things work here. They kept changing the events of the evening as to what they wanted.

What they wanted and they were afraid to spew it out of their mouths, they hate this legislation.

Q (Off mike) -- do you expect a filibuster at this point?

SEN. REID: That's what we have right now.

Q Do you accept no way -- (off mike) --

SEN. REID: Well, no way, I --

Q (Off mike) --

SEN. REID: No way I am -- as I said the first time I became the Democratic leader, I said I'd rather dance than fight, and I really believe that, and I even believe myself. And I'm going to really try to see if we can do some dancing this afternoon. I am willing to try to work something out with them, and I have a few ideas and I'll try them.

But at this point, there's nothing to work out because they hate this bill, and this is their excuse to kill it. But they're only pulling the wool over some people's eyes. The people that really care and have followed this issue -- beginning with Senator Feingold -- know that this is a subterfuge.

Q Senator Reid, can you --

SEN. REID: Yes.

Q Can you clarify -- just to clarify, then, is it your concern that the Republicans are going to start doing this to you on every bill of importance --

SEN. REID: Oh, I don't know --

Q -- or only on this bill because they specifically hate this bill?

SEN. REID: Oh, I don't know. I don't know, you know. I mean, you know, I don't know, maybe. I'm sure they're not wild about minimum wage. (Laughs.) It's taken 10 years for us to raise the -- I mean, they're not wild about anything I've talked about, but you know, this is the process

Q What about Iraq legislation?

SEN. REID: Oh, I think they're wild about that. (Laughter.)

Last question.

Q Are you going to -- (off mike) -- this afternoon, are you going to --

SEN. REID: Yes. I just haven't decided the time yet.

Q And have you talked to Senator McConnell today about --

SEN. REID: No. I have a right to do that, and I'm -- I haven't talked to him yet today, but I will.

Thank you, all, very much.

END.


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