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Specter Mulls Labor-HHS Without Earmarks

Facing an FBI investigation of his top staff and scrutiny of his own financial records, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he currently is weighing “the pros and cons” of whether to eliminate earmarks entirely from the annual Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies spending measure.

Specter, whose staffers are being investigated for allegedly improperly securing earmarks for businesses owned by their family members, currently chairs the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the bill. He said in a recent interview that he plans to talk to his fellow Senators about the idea of ridding the measure of targeted spending provisions but has yet to reach a final determination.

“I’ve talked to a lot of my colleagues,” he said. “There’s a reluctance to give them up. But we’re seeing more problems pop up all the time. ... It’s an atmosphere that makes even good things look questionable.

“I don’t like things that look questionable.”

In talking about recent earmarking “problems,” Specter specifically referenced two disgraced House Members, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), who admitted taking bribes in exchange for securing legislative favors for lobbyists. Specter also noted the troubles of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who is under investigation for allegedly taking bribes.

Specter first floated the idea of an earmark ban during an interview two weeks ago with Pennsylvania reporters asking him about revelations that the FBI pulled his financial records in connection with the investigation of his staff. Specter has denied any wrongdoing.

While the spotlight on Specter’s staff may be creating some internal pressure to eliminate earmarks in future bills, he is likely to face a tough sell with both his Senate and House counterparts.

While not overtly rejecting the notion, Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said, “I think broad prohibitions are probably not good.

“The Congress has to continue to have the power ... to specifically allocate funds to individual programs and projects,” Cochran said of the provision of the Constitution giving Congress the sole power over allocating the government’s money. “I don’t think the Senate is going to agree to deny itself a power that is inherently the power of the Congress.”

The idea likely will meet some stiff resistance in the House as well.

“Our decision last year not to do earmarks wasn’t very popular,” said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee Republicans. Scofield noted that last November all Democrats and a fair number of Republicans joined forces against the earmark-free fiscal 2006 Labor-HHS bill and defeated an appropriations conference report for the first time in 10 years.

Scofield said House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) would be “open to talk” about the idea, even though Lewis and other House appropriators vigorously opposed a recent rule change that requires Members to identify the earmarks they have secured.

However, if predictions of a Democratic takeover of the chamber are realized on Nov. 7, Specter may find himself negotiating any earmark ban with House Democrats, who frequently have complained over the past 12 years of Republican rule that the Labor-HHS bill gets shortchanged.

Indeed, eliminating earmarks from Labor-HHS likely would adversely impact some of the Democrats’ highest priorities since the bulk of targeted spending provisions in the bill go to community centers, hospitals, schools and job-training programs.

To get rid of earmarks in the bill, Specter would have to have the cooperation of Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who serves as ranking member for both the House Appropriations Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies and is expected to become full committee chairman should Democrats take the House.

Though Obey presided over an earmark-free Labor-HHS bill as chairman of the subcommittee in 1994, he is not known as an anti-earmark crusader. However, in an October interview with The New York Times, he derided the Republicans’ use of earmarks as “internal bribery in order to get Members to vote for a piece of legislation they wouldn’t ordinarily give two minutes to.”

Despite his ruminations on eliminating earmarks, even Specter appeared a bit ambivalent about making the decision, saying that while he’s always been concerned about earmark abuse, he believes they do fund many beneficial projects, from hospital grants to university and community services.

“Earmarks are misunderstood,” he said. “There’s such a popular impression that they are inappropriate.”

Meanwhile, earmarks in this year’s Labor-HHS spending bill appear safe for now. Specter has not said he would want to eliminate earmarks already in this year’s bill but is looking to the future.

The current House bill contains 1,811 earmarks for various projects ranging from $3 million for a Florida autism research center to $50,000 for a Canton, Ohio, early-childhood-teacher training program. The Senate bill contains 1,173 earmarks, according to Specter’s staff. Both versions total about $500 million in total earmarks, sources said. Neither chamber has passed its version of the bill, and the measure likely will be folded into an omnibus spending bill when Congress returns next month for a lame-duck session.

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