WASHINGTON -- A Republican plan to restrict lobbying by groups that receive federal funding suffered a sharp setback yesterday when House and Senate negotiators failed to agree on the legislation.
The proposal, backed by the House Republican leadership, would bar any organization that receives more than one-third of its revenue from the federal government -- essentially, nonprofit groups -- from spending more than $100,000 on lobbying.
Federally funded groups whose annual revenue exceeds $3 million could not lobby at all. Those that spend under $25,000 a year on political advocacy could still do so.
"We don't have the votes on this," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican who headed the Senate negotiating team.
The legislation was blocked in a House-Senate conference committee with the help of moderate Senate Republicans who said that the restrictions were too broad and should have targeted only large nonprofit groups.
The action appeared to hand a victory to nonprofit groups and their supporters. They have argued that the measure was intended to silence the many nonprofit organizations that oppose the Republicans' conservative agenda.
But Republican supporters of the measure said it was needed to hold government accountable for spending taxpayers' money. And they have argued that the bill was meant only to limit, not prohibit, lobbying by groups that receive federal money. Many had vowed to withhold their votes on essential spending bills if the lobbying measure failed.
"I'm not discouraged," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who was one of three House sponsors of the measure. "This is a temporary setback."
The proposal, attached to an unrelated spending bill, faces a dim future. It now goes back to both the House, which it will probably pass, and the Senate.
"It's probably going to be hard to carry the Senate," Mr. Shelby said.
"It's going to be fairly difficult -- 50-50 at best," Mr. Ehrlich said.
Mr. Ehrlich said he would refuse to back any watered-down version of the lobbying proposal merely to achieve a semblance of a victory.
"I am less interested in symbolic victories than in moving real legislation forward," he said. "One of the reasons people voted the Democrats out of is they're tired of symbolic victories."
The proposal, whose chief sponsor is Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., an Oklahoma Republican, has stalled a spending bill to finance the Treasury Department, the Postal Service and related agencies next year.
"This is not a dispute between Democrats and Republicans but a dispute between Republicans and Republicans," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the ranking House Democrat on the conference committee.
Critics have accused the Republicans of aiming the legislation at groups most hostile to their reforms, such as senior citizen groups that oppose the Republicans' Medicare proposal. Republicans counter that conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association would also be affected.
Leaders of nonprofit organizations in Maryland said that the measure threatened to push them out of the policy-making loop. Many of Maryland's 12,000 nonprofits argue that they fill the gap between the private and public sectors to address such issues as health care, education and the arts.
"We really [would be] left in a state where it's going to be up to the government and for-profit businesses to address how we deal with programs and services," said Peter V. Berns, executive director of the 500-member Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations.