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Press Conference with Senator Barack Obama (D-IL); Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT); Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) Subject: Honest Leadership Act

Location: Washington, DC


SEN. OBAMA: You know what? We are -- everybody is getting hung up in committees that are going too long and I don't want to keep you guys waiting. So you know, it's a shame when you were promised this all-star team and all you have is me. (Laughter.) But hopefully, they'll be showing up in a little bit, all right?

You know, over the past few weeks, you've heard Democrats talk about cleaning up corruption in Washington. You've heard about lobbying reform and the K Street Project and Jack Abramoff and corrupt politicians. But as I've said before, there's more to these scandals than golf junkets to Scotland or lavish gifts to Republican lawmakers. You know, what's truly offensive about these scandals is that they don't just lead to morally offensive conduct on the part of politicians; they lead to morally offensive legislation that hurts hardworking Americans. And I just want to mention a couple of examples.

Medicare. In the last year or so, Medicare legislation has become a piggybank for lobbyists and lawmakers to travel back and forth through the revolving doors in Washington. Since the passage of the prescription drug bill, 15 members of Congress, staffers, and Bush administration officials left to go to work for the health care industry. Nine of them registered to lobby for the implantation of the very Medicare bill that they helped to pass. One of them was actually negotiating for his bill at the same time as he was negotiating on the bill. If you're wondering what these folks did to impress the health care industry so much, look no further than the bill itself, which includes $10 billion in a slush fund for HMOs and a provision that protects drug company profits by preventing seniors from negotiating for the lowest prescription drug prices.

What's worse is that the health care giveaways don't stop there. The other week, The Washington Post reported that December, House and Senate Republicans met behind closed doors to slip a provision into a budget bill that would save the health insurance industry $22 billion over the next decade -- $22 billion. Think about this. Right now, we've got 45 million Americans who have no health insurance, millions are being crushed under the weight of their medical bills, the chaotic new Medicare law has left thousands of seniors scrambling for their medicine and getting turned away from the local pharmacies, poor kids are being cut off Medicaid, student loans have been cut by $12 billion, and we are in such debt that American taxpayers now owe China and Japan nearly $1 trillion, and yet we don't have a problem finding $10 billion here or $22 billion there for an extraordinarily profitable health care industry.

It's all done behind closed doors. It's helped by the cozy relationship between the people who write the laws and the lobbyists who used to help write the laws. That's why the American people don't trust Washington today. This is what's offending them on a fundamentally moral level, and this is what we need to clean up.

The Democrats' Honest Leadership and Open Government Act will help curb these abuses by closing the revolving door that allows lawmakers and staff to leave their jobs to go lobby without disclosing it to the public and make sure that those closed-door conference committee meetings where special interest provisions are secretly slipped into bills are forever open to the public. It stops lobbyists from incurring favor with lawmakers through gifts and trips. And it creates an independent office of public integrity to enforce these rules.

Now the president last night in his State of the Union Address spoke for 46 minutes before he finally dedicated less than 60 words to ethics reform. This isn't acceptable. We need a serious commitment to reform and we need to take this legislation up today.

The Democrats already have 40 cosponsors; 40 out of the 55 members of our caucus are already cosponsoring this bill. More importantly, we have an American public that's urging us to take action. That's why it's not time right now for committees or commissions; this is a time for Washington to get to work and clean up its act once and for all.

And let me just make one final note. We're not just going to have to reform the laws in this town, we're going to have to reform attitudes. Unfortunately, the attitude of the Republicans in power has been to help their lobbyist friends instead of the people, who elected them. It's time to start working for the American people again. Obviously, the do not have high-priced lobbyists like the health care industry can hire, but they can start expecting us to govern in an honest way, to stand up for their interest and defend their values. And I hope that both parties agree to start doing that in the weeks and months to come.

And as I pointed out, you know, over here you can see just a couple of headlines that indicate the problems that we have, specifically on the health care issue.

With that, let me open it up to questions, and hopefully I can stall until Senator Lieberman and perhaps Senator Feingold get here.

Go ahead.

Q Senator, what is the difference between a one-year revolving door issue and two years? Do you really think that'll make a difference?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think it has an impact because I think that, you know, there is a genuine difference between a Billy Tauzin, who is the chairman of a committee ushering through a bill just as he is negotiating his employment with Pharma, and a greater separation of time between actions taken on Capitol Hill and your potential prospective employer. So I think it makes a difference. There may be areas that we can -- where we can strengthen this even more. I know one of the concerns -- welcome, Joe. Man, I've been sweating here. (Laughter.)

I know one of the concerns that's been expressed is that the current category of what qualifies as lobbying may be too narrow, so that, you know, it may be that you can go work for a lobbying firm and as long as you're not picking up the phone to call Joe Lieberman or Barack Obama, you're not technically lobbying, even if you're supervising the entire operation. You know, that's an area that I think, you know, we may want to look at in terms of strengthening the bill further.

You know, one point I just want to mention in terms of process or a couple points I want to mention in terms of process.

Number one, I met last week and again this morning with all the reform groups in Washington that have taken an interest in this: Common Cause, Center for Responsive Politics and so forth. I have asked them to prepare a list of additional proposals, additional reforms that they think will strengthen what we already have, and I will make a presentation to the Democratic leadership and the caucus about some of those proposals because I want and I know Joe Lieberman wants the strongest possible bill. And so they're in the process of doing that now.

The second thing I want to mention is, you know, I know that, as I've said before, the Republicans seem to have found religion on this thing, and I'm glad about it. There is one person who's been consistent on reform issues, and that's been John McCain. You know, I talked to John before I came here, although it's been -- it was called somewhat last minute, I know that they've asked for a meeting at 2:15. I'll attend that meeting and let them know that I am prepared to work across the aisle to make some things happen.

Before I take any other questions, let me go ahead and give Joe Lieberman an opportunity to address you.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Barack. Sorry to be late, I just got out of a hearing, but I knew you could handle it.

SEN. OBAMA: I could.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: And I thank you for your leadership in this effort. I'll be real brief because I know you want to get to your questions.

The obvious facts are that the Jack Abramoff scandal and the legal proceedings against some members of Congress have focused not only America's attention and the media's attention, but Congress' attention on the way in which we regulate a very important constitutional right, which is to petition government, which is to say lobbying. Some of the cases, certainly the Abramoff case, have shown already some glaring gaps in the existing law and regulation of lobbyists. And that's why I believe that -- and I'm not alone -- that we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to adopt genuine and far- reaching lobbying reform. And shame on us if we don't take advantage of this opportunity, and obviously to truly take advantage of it, it has to be bipartisan. But there's a lot of good indication, including what Senator Obama just said about the meeting this afternoon which I'll also attend, that there will be bipartisan cooperation on this.

I want to say from my part as a Democratic senator that I am very proud of my leadership; Senator Reid, Senator Obama taking an active role in the measure that they have proposed, that we have proposed, for lobbying reform. It builds on a bipartisan proposal that Senator McCain and I have introduced based on the work that he did in the Indian Affairs Committee on the Abramoff scandal, and it's also based in part on some really early legislative activity by Senator Russ Feingold in this regard.

I'm also glad to be here as the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Governmental Affairs Committee to which these three bills have been referred: the Feingold bill, the McCain/Lieberman bill and the Reid/Obama bill. And Senator Collins and I, as you know, held a hearing last week on this, and we're very intent on moving as quickly as possible in a bipartisan way to go over the various proposals and then to mark up a bill and report it out. So I think there's a moment here, and we should seize it and make something good happen that will last for years.

Thank you.

SEN. OBAMA: Thank you, Joe.

All right. Sorry -- there you go.

Q Senators, the Medicare prescription drug (benefit ?) is off to a very rocky start. It's gotten a lot of bad press. Do you think that your constituents or Americans generally are drawing connections between the troubles in the Medicare program and the fact that it was designed and influenced --


Q -- from lobbyists? And can you discuss that?

SEN. OBAMA: Yeah, when I go -- I had a town hall meeting just this past -- this past Monday. And when I talked to constituents -- there were about 600 of them there -- I think they were questioning me about the impact of the drug lobby and the insurance industry and other health care industries on the prescription drug bill, and asked me why is it so screwed up? I think it is not just in health care arena.

You know, the president talked yesterday about our addiction to oil, and I applauded him for identifying that as an important issue. But the fact is that part of the reason that we continue to be addicted to oil and part of the reason that ExxonMobil enjoyed record profits last year -- $36 billion if I'm mistaken, which is greater than most state budgets in this country -- had to do with the fact that, you know, the first bill that was written, or the first initiative that was taken by this White House on energy, was to bring in the oil and gas company executives into a closed-door meeting.

So I think people draw the connection. They want to see, you know, a change in practice in Washington. And I think Senator Lieberman is exactly right that it needs to go through a committee process, it needs to move -- it needs to be carefully considered. But what I'm very concerned about, and I know that Joe will be fighting to prevent this as well, is death by a thousand cuts.


SEN.OBAMA: You know, there's an old saying that there are -- there's only one way to pass a bill; there are a thousand ways to kill it. And you know, I think everybody should be on the look out for efforts to water down or kill lobbying reform, or to pass something without much teeth just to get it out of the way. I think this is something that we have to remain focused on.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: I want to have just one brief word, and it is this. I mean, I voted against the Medicare Part D bill because I thought that while it was trying to do some very good things for seniors to help them pay for the cost of prescription drugs, it did some things that were wrong for the health care industry and the pharmaceutical industry.

I do want to say, however -- and I agree with what Barack has said about all of this, including the impact of the oil industry. But I do want to say that even if all of our best bills are adopted, and we really regulate the lobbying profession much more, the big industries are still going to have a legal opportunity to influence members, and then the ultimate responsibility is the members. You've got to be able to say, notwithstanding your power, your campaign contributions, whatever else, what you're asking me here is just plain wrong.

So Barack obviously knows this and I'm sure we're in tandem on it. We're going to try to do our best by improving the law to regulate lobbyists, and prevent them from doing the kind of sordid, unseemly ultimately illegal things that Jack Abramoff did. But the influence of big interests will be here, still legally, then we've got to have the guts to stand up and say what you're asking is wrong and I'm not going to vote for you.

SEN. OBAMA: We're going by somebody obviously who's always been a leader in this issue. And so I want to give Senator Feingold an opportunity to speak.

One thing that I do want to just add to this because I think Senator Lieberman makes an excellent point: at some level, elected officials are responsible. That's why we've got stronger disclosure provisions in our bill, and those may need to be strengthened, but we want to cast sunshine over the entire process.

I have an additional bill that's not in the leadership bill that I'm hopeful will get referred to the committee as well and become part of the package, and that has to do with how our processes in terms of conference committees and other procedural maneuvers here in Washington operate to strengthen the hand of some of these lobbyists.

If you have a situation in which you can slip in a major tax provision or earmark last minute, it gets kicked out of conference committee, we've got half an hour to read it before we vote, that magnifies the opportunities for abuse.

So you know, I think we want to -- obviously, ultimately, we want to rely on the good judgment and ethics of our members, but setting up rules that allow us to monitor this stuff a little more carefully, I think, is important as well.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Thank you Senator Obama, Senator Lieberman.

I'll just take a second because I know you've already had a statement and some questions. But just to put this in context, you know, we worked so many years -- John McCain, Joe and others -- to pass McCain-Feingold. And that dealt with -- not by any means everything we felt had to be dealt with in campaign finance reform but it did deal with the great problem of party soft money.

I remember the same experience in the gift ban with Senator McCain and Paul Wellstone, Frank Lautenberg, Carl Levin and others. Well, we got a gift ban for the first time -- not as strong as Wisconsin's zero tolerance that I'd like to see us go to now, but we did get the gift ban in place that I think actually limited a lot of these practices. So that's how this works.

And in fact, what happens is that once you do, people sort of have an exhaustion factor and they don't want talk about that subject for awhile. Well, thanks to Jack Abramoff and others, everybody's talking about it. And this is a golden opportunity to get a lot of things done that should have been done a long time ago.

This is the heart and soul of the bill that 40 of us have offered in the Senate. It's also the core of the bill I offered. It's also the core of the bill that Senator McCain and Senator Lieberman offered. So as long as we remember two things, this could be a tremendous step forward in terms of reforms.

The first thing is -- and we as Democrats believe this -- this has to be bipartisan. We don't think for a minute that this is going to get done if it's just one party demanding one set of reforms and the other one not. And the record is that it's the Democrats on these issues that I've just talked about who have always combined with Republicans to achieve successful reforms. It is not the record that the majority of Republicans have done that. Maybe that will change this time. So it's very possible to say that we're doing this as Democrats; at the same time, we believe the solution has to be bipartisan.

The other thing, of course, is to avoid -- however you want to describe it: the bait and switch, the changing of the subject. I noticed this already when I was testifying before Senator Lieberman's committee. A number of the members, especially on the Republican side, say, you know, these gifts are problem and who could you buy for a $200 bottle of wine, and so on and so forth; the real problem is tax policy or the real problem is earmarking.

It's fine to talk about those things, but not to the exclusion of the critical issues as a gift ban, revolving-door corporate gifts and the list. So I happen to strongly agree with Senator Obama that earmark reform should be part of this and I'm working with Senator McCain on a proposal that should be part of this, but not a replacement. And that is the thing I'm most concerned about. (Cross talk and laughter.)

Q Senator?

SEN. OBAMA: Yeah, go ahead.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Last question.

Q One of the problems that some of these -- I don't know what -- (off mike) -- but one of them did a study on the treasurers of the campaign committees and they found that lobbyists were treasurers. Do the three of you think that lobbyists should not be signed on by members, not be allowed to do this and shouldn't be treasurers of campaign committees?

SEN. OBAMA: I think that it is the sort of practice that raises great suspicion. Now I think there are all sorts of colleagues who happen to be friends with the lobbyists, trust them to serve as their treasurers. They're here in Washington; they're easily accessible.

But the appearance of potential influence is such where I personally think -- and I'm not now speaking for my entire caucus -- but I personally think that a bright-line rule saying lobbyists cannot hold those positions is appropriate. That's something that I would support.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: I totally agree.

Q Would you call on members to voluntarily enforce this standard right now?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, one, I suspect if you write an article suggesting that, I think many will follow. I know that one of our colleagues from the Illinois delegation voluntarily ceased this practice.

But I think that setting up rules is the right way to go as opposed to voluntary compliance, because, let's face it: you know, often times people will push the envelope. They'll go as far as they can up to the very -- you know, the line that's been drawn. And I think it makes sense for us to draw a line and say, you know, if somebody is a professional, registered lobbyist who is representing major clients that may be appearing before your committee, you having as the treasurer of your campaign committee just raises too many red flags.

Okay, let's make this the last question.

Q (Off mike) -- Senator McCain said the reforms should cover 527s. I was wondering how you feel about that.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I'm sure -- Russ and Joe may have some comments on this. I think all of us are concerned about the use of 527s as surrogates for other interests and the lack of disclosure, the lack of knowledge in terms of where this money's coming from and how it's flowing. And so I'd be happy to work on a 527 bill and see where we could take it.

My suggestion would be -- and then this is something of a strategic issue, and I can't say that my colleagues agree with me directly on this -- that if we put 527s in the middle of a lobbying bill where we have an opportunity to do what Russ just laid out -- a set of very clear areas where I think we can generate some consensus -- including, by the way, a means of enforcing these rules, which is -- you know, Democrats have taken it a step further than any Republican, but I think we can go even further in making sure that we can enforce these rules.

If we stay focused on that, then I think we can get something done. We started getting into 527s. I know -- you know, I'm still new here, but I know that's been controversial in the past.

It doesn't mean that it's not something that we should pursue, but my instinct would be to pursue that on a parallel track as opposed to loading this particular bill up so heavily that it ends up an excuse to kill it.

I don't know, Russ, if you want to add anything.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, you know, I generally agree with that. If, in fact, what you had was simply the McCain-Feingold-Lieberman 527 bill, which was very straightforward and right down the middle, just that, that's one thing. But what they did in the House, of course, is they took the words of 527 and started figure out ways to undo McCain- Feingold and basically make it an anti-campaign finance reform bill. That's the danger in addition to making it too heavy.

But if it can be done with agreement between houses that that would be added and it doesn't cause us to lose support, as you just suggested, that's okay. But the main focus should be on the abuses that we've -- that led to all of this.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah, we're all agreed on this. The 527s have become a really egregious end run on the McCain-Feingold accomplishments because they're a place where people can get unlimited amounts of money into our political system, and that was supposed to stop. And so I'm very proud to be on the bill reforming the 527 law with John and Russ.

But we've got to make a practical, tactical decision here. If we can get a very strong lobbying reform bill like the ones through -- the ones we've talked about, with the 527 reform on it, great. My suspicion is that it opens up a door that will jeopardize our immediate focus, and therefore we're probably going to have to wait for another day for 527 reform, which I hope is not too far in the future.

SEN. OBAMA: Okay, thank you, guys.

Q Oh, Senator Obama, can I ask you --

SEN. OBAMA: Oh, oh, oh! You all are (doing it ?) to me!

Q I know, because you're so -- (off mike) --

SEN. OBAMA: Oh! (Laughter.)

Q I was wondering if you could react to --

SEN. OBAMA: Go ahead. Did Harry Belafonte say something? (Laughter.)

Q No, this actually has to do with the energy propsal you have. (Off mike.)

SEN. OBAMA: Yeah, I'm happy to talk about that.

Q All right.

(Off mike conversations.)

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I was glad that the president recognized that our addiction to oil is a threat to our economy, our environment and increasingly our national security. And we have the technology available to start making a difference if we start using alternative fuels, biodiesel, flexible-fuel vehicles.

Last year I spent a lot of time working on making sure that these fuels were available at gas stations all across the country. One of the problems we have is not manufacturing the cars that will take these alternative fuels, but making sure that there's a distribution system in place. And so my hope is is that I can work with the administration and my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to see if we can expand the incentives to create the distribution system.

Brazil is already getting more than half of all its transportation fuel from an ethanol blend. There's no reason if Brazil can do it that we can't do it.

Q How optimistic are you that the president will embrace that idea?

SEN. OBAMA: I think we actually have a great opportunity. One of the good things about the flexible fuel issue, alternative fuels and biodiesel is that not only does it help us on the energy front, but it also provides a new market to our farmers. And that, as a consequence, gives it oftentimes stronger bipartisan support than we otherwise would have.

Q On ethanol --

(Off mike conversations.)

Q (Off mike) -- proposal to have non-corn-based ethanol research come as a concern to you?

SEN. OBAMA: I'm sorry; what's that?

Q Part of what the president is proposing is non-corn based.

SEN. OBAMA: Yes, and I think --

Q Are you concerned about that?

SEN. OBAMA: No, I think we should encourage it. You know, obviously, we've got a lot of corn in Illinois, but I also think that if you look at what Brazil's done, they've used things like switchgrass and other cellulose-based processes that are, if not as efficient, maybe even more efficient. And so, you know, we want to encourage our farmers to look at these innovative technologies as well.

Q Thank you.


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