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Originally published January 5, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 5, 2006 at 12:44 AM

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Bush joins dozens of lawmakers in shedding funds tied to Abramoff

Republican Party officials said Wednesday that President Bush will give up $6,000 in campaign contributions connected to disgraced lobbyist...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Republican Party officials said Wednesday that President Bush will give up $6,000 in campaign contributions connected to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, joining an expansive list of politicians who have shed more than half a million dollars in tainted campaign cash.

The announcement came as Abramoff pleaded guilty in a second criminal case, acknowledging that he conspired to defraud lenders in the purchase of a fleet of Florida casino boats five years ago. The court appearance in Miami came a day after Abramoff pleaded guilty before a federal judge in Washington to defrauding Indian tribal clients of millions of dollars, conspiring to bribe members of Congress and evading taxes.

Under plea agreements negotiated in the two federal cases, the once-powerful lobbyist promised to provide evidence and testimony in a wide-ranging Justice Department corruption probe of lobbying of Congress and federal agencies.

Fearful of adverse political fallout from the expanding investigation, Republicans in both houses of Congress moved forward with legislative packages to tighten lobbying regulations. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., called again for a limit on "pork-barrel" projects in annual spending bills, which Abramoff himself described as "favor factories."

And the conservative National Review — a staunch defender of Rep. Tom DeLay in his fight against campaign-finance charges in Texas — urged the Texas Republican to give up his bid to regain his post as House majority leader because of his links to Abramoff.

Washington political leaders hope the legislative moves and campaign refunds will insulate their party as Abramoff begins cooperating with one of the largest congressional-corruption probes in decades.

"The problem is that power corrupts, and we simply have too much of it," Flake said.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush does not know Abramoff personally, although the two might have met at holiday receptions.

Abramoff raised more than $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, making him an honorary Bush "Pioneer." The campaign is giving up only the $6,000 that came directly from Abramoff, his wife and one of the tribes the lobbyist represented. The money will be donated to the American Heart Association.

The gesture was criticized by the campaign watchdog group Public Citizen, which called for an accounting of all the money that Abramoff raised for the campaign.

"President Bush needs to ... reveal just how much money Abramoff raised for him and who that money came from," said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch.

But McClellan contested any suggestion that Abramoff's fundraising won him any special favors or access. "If someone thinks that money is coming in with strings attached, it doesn't get in the door," he said.

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At least 24 politicians have now pledged to relinquish $515,199 in Abramoff-tainted campaign cash, including some of the most powerful Republicans in Washington. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., will give up at least $60,000. DeLay has pledged to donate $57,000 in Abramoff-linked contributions to charity. And acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., plans to shed the $8,500 that Abramoff and his wife donated to his political-action committee.

All but three of the 24 politicians getting rid of the contributions are Republicans. The three Democrats — Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota — have pledged to refund a total of $97,000 in contributions.

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Reid has no intention of shedding the $47,000 he has received from members of Abramoff's lobbying team and tribal clients.

"Abramoff was a Republican operative, and this is a Republican scandal," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "Any effort by Republicans to drag Democrats into this is doomed to failure."

The half-million in pledged refunds are a fraction of the $5.3 million that Abramoff, some of his lobbyist colleagues and tribal clients showered on 364 federal candidates and campaign committees between 1999 and 2004. About 64 percent of that money went to Republicans. About 35 percent went to Democrats, and 1 percent went to candidates unaffiliated with the two parties.

But it is not clear that simply shedding Abramoff's cash will get lawmakers out of the lobbyist's shadow. According to Abramoff's guilty plea, the contributions were aimed at winning specific favors, from torpedoing legislation to securing federal contracts.

"You just can't give the money back and forget about what the money was for," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

With that in mind, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., asked Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., just before Thanksgiving to draft a package of lobbying restrictions, according to Robert Traynham, a Santorum spokesman. That effort will run parallel to a push from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has drafted his own lobbying legislation. McCain's partner in an earlier campaign-finance fight, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., also has a proposal.

"I will be working with colleagues this session to examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying," Frist said in a statement Wednesday. "... I look forward to working to secure the continued integrity of the Senate."

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