Patriot Act OK'd, ethics watchdog agency is rejected


WASHINGTON -- A key Senate committee rejected yesterday a proposal to create a new agency that would oversee congressional ethics, dealing a major blow to efforts to give outsiders at least some authority to police lawmakers' conduct.

The plan to set up an Office of Public Integrity was derailed by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee - despite its sponsorship by the panel's chairwoman, Republican Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

The measure's 11-5 defeat underscored the growing resistance on Capitol Hill to sweeping reforms advocated by government watchdog groups and some lawmakers in the wake of recent political scandals.

Rather than significantly rewrite their rules for conduct, most members of Congress appear to favor more extensive reporting requirements - mostly for lobbyists.

Meanwhile yesterday, the Senate also voted overwhelmingly to renew the USA Patriot Act, after months of pitched debate over legislation that supporters said struck a better balance between privacy rights and the government's power to hunt down terrorists.

The 89-10 vote marked a bright spot in President Bush's troubled second term as his approval ratings dipped over the war in Iraq and his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. Renewing the act, congressional Republicans said, was key to preventing more terror attacks in the United States.

Critics maintained that the bill is weighted too much toward the interests of law enforcement.

The House was expected to pass the legislation next week and send it to Bush, who would sign it before 16 provisions expire March 10.

The failed congressional ethics proposal called for establishing an office that would operate independently of the existing House and Senate ethics committees and would have the power to initiate investigations of lawmakers. But its findings would be turned over to the congressional ethics panels, whose members would then decide on any penalties.

In yesterday's debate, several senators balked at ceding even limited oversight power to an outside agency.

"There is no need to reinvent the wheel," said Sen. George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican who led opposition to the proposal. "The Office of Public Integrity is a solution in search of a problem."

Voinovich is chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, as well as a member of the homeland security panel.

After the latter committee scotched the ethics office provision, it approved legislation that would require lobbyists to provide more detailed reports on their activities, to file that information more frequently and to disclose the money they spend to promote the interest of their clients.

The bill also would require lobbyists to list annually the campaign donations and fund-raising events in which they take part.

Mary Curtius and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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