By Lynn Sweet
Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON -- In symbol and substance, Senate Democrats are testing their new power, offering tougher ethics and lobbying rules as their first piece of legislation.
''At the end of the day, the Senate will pass the most sweeping reforms since Watergate,'' predicted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday.
Reid was joined by Senate Democrats Barack Obama and Russ Feingold and eight Democratic freshmen sworn in last Thursday.
Reid sponsored S. 1, making the first bill an ethics and lobbying crackdown. The Senate starts debate on it today. It's not as strong as the resolution the House passed last week, but Reid said he welcomed amendments to make it tougher.
''Hopefully I can support Senators Obama and Feingold and the freshmen on things they feel is important to do,'' Reid said.
Obama and Feingold, in their ethics bill, call for the creation of an independent Office of Public Integrity; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also plans to call for the same in a bill he will sponsor.
Last year, GOP and Democratic senators rejected the proposal, and Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have not supported an outside ethics office.
Obama and Feingold also want to require senators and their campaigns to pay the full costs for use of a corporate jet, rather than the much cheaper first-class airfare now required.
Use of discounted corporate planes is a perk senators have been resisting giving up. In 2005, Obama accepted this corporate discount 23 times before ending the practice in January 2006, after he was named a Democratic spokesman on ethics. Now when he travels on a charter plane, he pays for it with campaign funds.
Obama wrote in his latest book, The Audacity of Hope, about the seduction of plush corporate aircraft and how his staff advised him to quit taking the perk.
He revisited the subject on Monday, after being asked why senators have a hard time giving up subsidized plane rides.
''I'm somebody who transitioned from having used them,'' Obama said.
''Now, why do you think there's resistance? Well, because corporate jets are nice. You know, they're convenient. They're waiting for you. You don't have to take your shoes off.''
Obama later told the Sun-Times that the Democratic leaders will not demand party line votes, which will make it easier to form coalitions with Republicans to get something enacted.