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Senate Struggles on Earmarks

The two Senators taking the lead on reforming their chamber’s earmark rules need to come up with a measure that can sail through the Senate before GOP leaders approve it, a senior leadership aide said.

The Senate is struggling to match the reform enacted last week by their House colleagues, and with the clock ticking down to adjournment, it is unclear whether Senators will be able to produce any workable rules changes.

For now, Senate Republican leaders are deferring to Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and ranking member Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a GOP leadership aide said.

Similarly imperiled is a plan that Lott and Dodd want to push to eliminate the long-standing Senate tradition of secret holds, in which Senators can block legislation without identifying themselves. Republican leadership in the chamber remains opposed to the proposal.

While the holds change and the earmark reform likely would move separately, a leadership aide said it remains to be seen whether either one will advance.

A spokeswoman for Lott did not return requests for comment, and a Dodd spokeswoman said the Senator is waiting for Republicans to step forward with a plan.

“Sen. Dodd stands ready to listen and report back to his leadership, but we’ve not heard of any movement or proposals from the majority,” Colleen Flanagan said, adding that Dodd “was very clear that he thinks the House ought to move forward and appoint conferees in the time still left to enact comprehensive reform.”

Broader lobbying reform remains stalled, because the House-passed legislation includes a provision cracking down on 527s that is opposed by a cloture-proof majority in the Senate. Despite new calls for action from outside ethics groups after the Friday’s news of an expected guilty plea by Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), prospects for a more comprehensive measure on lobbying laws continue to appear dim.

Meanwhile, focus has shifted to the Senate after House lawmakers approved a change to their internal rules requiring new disclosure for sponsors of earmarks on spending, tax and authorizing bills. With appropriations season in full swing, aides, lobbyists and outside watchdogs were struggling late last week to understand the House-passed language and gauge its impact on the remaining work on spending bills this year.

“It’s unclear,” said House Appropriations spokesman John Scofield. “Ideally it would apply to both chambers, but we lost that argument because of political expediency.”

Members of the House spending panel mostly opposed the rules change. Their interpretation of the measure is that it cracks down more forcefully on appropriators than it does on taxing and authorizing committees. And while fiscally conservative Republicans hailed the reform’s passage, some in their ranks were still unsure late last week exactly what it would accomplish.

“It’s going to turn into the commencement of hot debates on exactly what earmarks are,” one conservative House GOP aide said. “We see this as just the beginning.”

For appropriations bills, the House earmark reform seems likely to have a limited impact this year. The change is only certain to apply to earmarks in the one spending measure the chamber has not yet passed — the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill. Other than that, only earmarks dropped into conference reports will have to include the names of their sponsors.

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