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New Congress members meet big-money donors

  • Story Highlights
  • Twenty-two newly elected Democrats, one candidate invited to reception
  • Lobbyists, other potential donors attend "New Member Debt Retirement Reception"
  • Watchdog group's president critical of reception, saying it's "all-strings-attached"
  • Congressman: No other way of financing campaigns "unless you are a zillionaire"
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By Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston
CNN Special Investigations Unit
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Before being sworn in or casting their first votes, some newly elected members of Congress were introduced Wednesday to another hallmark of life on Capitol Hill -- the big-ticket reception for big-money donors.

Twenty-two Democrats who will be joining the House of Representatives in January, along with a Democrat who faces a delayed election contest in December, were the invited guests of honor at the "2008 Red to Blue New Member Debt Retirement Reception" at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

The 8:30 a.m. event's invitation -- from House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall -- told lobbyists and other potential donors that "as this historic campaign year comes to a close, these newest members of Congress need your help in retiring their campaign debt."

Along with the invitation came a dance card of sorts -- a list of the names of all 23 alongside blanks on which donors are encouraged to write down the amount they'd like to contribute. The card also lists the names of each candidate's campaign committee -- to make writing the checks easier.

The invitation encourages donors to sign up at levels ranging from a $20,000 "PAC Host" to a $2,500 "Individual Friend."

It was unclear how many of the future House members honored at the reception actually attended it.

A spokesman for Dingell said he was too busy to talk about the fundraiser. Rahall said that although he supports public campaign financing, fundraisers like the one he sponsored are a must for elected officials until an adequate system is put in place.

He said political action committees, like the ones invited to the reception, are funded by volunteer contributions from members of the groups they represent and that "every group has their representative in Washington these days."

"I do not know another way of financing campaigns unless you are a zillionaire and able to reach in your own pocket and finance your campaign," Rahall, of West Virginia, said as he was walking into the event.

But Joan Claybrook, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, isn't a fan of the warm welcome the new lawmakers received on a cold and windy morning in Washington.

"This is the old-boy network at work, and these members of Congress got an introduction to Washington and the Congress that I think is unfortunate," Claybrook said.

Such gatherings were certainly a part of doing business when Republicans controlled Congress. Claybrook said that despite talk of change during the election year, the influence of lobbyists is entrenched in Washington and isn't likely to go anywhere.

"This is all-strings-attached," Claybrook said. "They know who gave the money and when key issues come up -- key bills, key amendments -- these members are going to be approached by special interests and asked to vote with them because they gave the money."

Ric Fenton, a lobbyist who attended the reception, said he was not there to buy access to the future lawmakers.

"No. Absolutely no," said Fenton, who specializes in mining issues, when asked. He said he planned to give $5,000 to several of the new representatives.

"We're just educators and we provide an important function as an education function," Fenton said.

The National Mining Association, which represents large coal companies, is among the clients of Klein and Saks Group -- the company Fenton works for.

Rep.-elect Mark Schauer, who will represent the Battle Creek, Michigan, area, said he already had to raise a lot of money to win his election. He said he came to the event to meet people who could help educate him on issues.

"It's the policy side that we are going to need a lot of guidance -- especially this economic mess that we are in right now," Schauer said.

Schauer said he didn't know how much was raised or how much he will receive, but he said he met some interesting people.

"I got to make connection with a couple of important future colleagues and meet some people involved in the process so, you know, I am even more ready to hit the ground running," he said.

One of the important people Schauer got to connect with was House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Applause for Hoyer could be heard outside after he arrived at the reception, which was closed to the news media.

Hoyer said the media overplays the influence lobbyists have on the votes of elected officials.

"Do they have communication with people that contribute? Of course they do," Hoyer said. "No one would doubt that. But their main interest here is serving the best interest of their constituents and their country."

He said that gatherings like Wednesday's give lobbyists and others access "just as a citizen gets access when they go to a town meeting and spend some time there, or when they volunteer in a campaign."

Hoyer added that many of those attending the event were there more to show support for the new lawmakers than to seek favor from them.

"You would be surprised at how many people in this room are Democrats first and interest representatives second," he said. "Now, I know that sounds strange to the community, but that has been my experience."

The following are the 22 Democrats newly elected to Congress and one Democratic candidate honored at Wednesday's reception. (It is unknown whether all of the honorees attended the reception.)

John Adler (New Jersey, 3rd District)
Bobby Bright (Alabama, 2nd District)
Paul Carmouche (Louisiana, 4th District. Facing Dec. 6 election vs. Republican nominee)
Kathy Dahlkemper (Pennsylvania, 3rd District)
Alan Grayson (Florida, 8th District)
Parker Griffith (Alabama, 5th District)
Martin Heinrich (New Mexico, 1st District)
Jim Himes (Connecticut, 4th District)
Ann Kirkpatrick (Arizona, 1st District)
Larry Kissell (North Carolina, 8th District)
Suzanne Kosmas (Florida, 24th District)
Frank Kratovil (Maryland, 1st District)
Ben Ray Lujan (New Mexico, 3rd District)
Betsy Markey (Colorado, 4th District)
Eric Massa (New York, 29th District)
Walt Minnick (Idaho, 1st District)
Glenn Nye (Virginia, 2nd District)
Tom Perriello (Virginia, 5th District)
Gary Peters (Michigan, 9th District)
Chellie Pingree (Maine, 1st District)
Mark Schauer (Michigan, 7th District)
Kurt Schrader (Oregon, 5th District)
Harry Teague (New Mexico, 2nd District)

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