WASHINGTON -- For years, Congress has largely deflected the public clamor for members to clamp down on freewheeling lobbyists and to curb their own appetite for free tickets, meals and vacations from special interests.
Lawmakers came tantalizingly close to passing a stringent bill last year, but the effort fizzled in a Senate filibuster.
Now they're going to try again.
Today, according to Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., the Senate will launch a debate on legislation to control the registration of paid lobbyists and their gifts.
There are indications that a bipartisan compromise is possible on the lobbying portion of the reform bill. But there is still a wide gulf between the two sides on banning certain gifts and other freebies to members of Congress.
On the lobbying issue, the intent is to require the thousands of paid lobbyists who routinely ply their trade here to register with Congress, to identify their clients, to report how much they are paid to lobby, and to specify the issues on which they are trying to influence the votes of senators and representatives. The aim is to help the public determine the sources of pressure on lawmakers.
"The current law is riddled with huge loopholes and exceptions, so huge that the laws are almost totally ineffective and breed disrespect," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chief sponsor of the bill. He said at least half the people paid to lobby here don't even bother to register.
Mr. Levin is trying to work out a compromise with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that will attract enough votes in both parties to avoid another impasse and -- hopes again for effective legislation.
Mr. McConnell is opposed to Mr. Levin's proposal to create a new government office to enforce the lobbying changes. "We've been trying to pare down the size of the government, not add to it," Mr. McConnell said. "But I think we may be able to resolve this and come together on a bipartisan bill."
The two sides also are divided over a provision in Mr. Levin's plan that would require the registration of lobbyists who ask lawmakers to intervene in Executive Branch matters, such as federal rule-making and enforcement of regulations.
If the contenders are converging on a compromise on lobbying, they are diverging on the gift ban.
Under one proposal, any kind of gift -- meals, tickets, trips -- from paid lobbyists would be prohibited.
Over the years, lawmakers -- accompanied by spouses and children -- have traveled at the special-interests' expense to vacation spots for several days and justified it on the basis they were invited to give a speech or take part in a seminar.
Many of these events, such as golf and tennis tournaments, are billed as charities, even though the lobbies or trade associations pick up the members' tabs.
Under a proposal sponsored by Mr. Levin, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, members of Congress could still attend such events if they were sponsored by trade associations or other non-lobbyists. Travel and lodging expenses could be provided, but the members would have to pay for any recreational time or favors -- such as golf greens fees or ski-lift charges -- out of their own pockets.
The Levin approach won the support of President Clinton, who said in his radio address Saturday that "Congress should send me the strongest possible ban on lobbyist gifts" rather than legislation that is "more loophole than law."
A proposal favored by Mr. McConnell would largely retain the current system, but increase disclosure and limit the maximum value of a gift or meal to $100.
Mr. McConnell acknowledged that a compromise is unlikely on the gift-ban issue. "I think what we'll do is bring up both versions and let the Senate choose," he said. "My view is, we already have the toughest gift rules in the world now, and I want something that's workable."
At the moment, there appears to be little momentum for such legislation in the House, where the leadership has been cool to the idea -- even though some reformers in both parties have recommended various remedies.
But if the Senate passes a bill, House leaders will be under heavy pressure to deal with the matter.