Senate Democrats to challenge Bush promotional efforts

Senate Democrats are preparing for an early battle this session with their GOP counterparts and the White House over accusations that the Bush administration might have violated federal spending rules in undertaking a series of public relations moves, including hiring conservative pundit Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., earlier this week asked GAO to investigate the Williams contract -- which paid him more than $240,000 in federal funds to promote the law -- to determine whether it is legal.

Lautenberg is also preparing "anti-propaganda" legislation to formally bar federal agencies from engaging in questionable tactics, and the Democratic Policy Committee is planning to make the issue the subject of one its first investigative hearings, Democratic aides said.

According to a summary of the draft Lautenberg bill, the legislation would bar the government from spending federal funds on any materials promoting policies or laws that do not explicitly include a disclaimer that the materials, including press releases, commercials and videos, are government documents.

Although no formal announcement of committee hearings has been made, Democratic aides on Tuesday said Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota would almost certainly launch an investigation, setting up as an early test of Democrats' efforts to beef up the committee's largely dormant oversight functions.

Although the committee cannot subpoena witnesses, federal law does allow it to hold hearings and call witnesses. Reid and Dorgan have vowed to use those investigative powers during the 109th session to bird-dog the Bush administration. Hearings into the Williams case could test the limits of the committee's ability to conduct oversight of the administration.

Given the potentially widespread nature of the issue, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics on Tuesday filed Freedom of Information Act requests with 22 federal agencies to determine whether similar deals have been made.

Last year, the White House came under fire for creating a false news "story" on the benefits of the new Medicare prescription drug plan that featured a public relations executive playing a reporter. The Bush administration recently authored a similar video "news story" on the dangers of marijuana that again included an actor playing a reporter. Numerous television outlets used both spots as is in their news broadcasts.