A one-year moratorium on earmarks divided both parties Tuesday as they measured the political potency of the issue. Republican and Democratic Senate leaders are cool to the idea, while rank-and-file Members are split.
Sources in both camps say Democrats and Republicans have settled into a staring contest in the hope that one side will flinch and let the other off the hook before the likely vote Thursday. Up until midday Monday, neither Democratic nor Republican leadership aides saw the amendment to the budget resolution as more than a symbolic vote. But then presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) joined Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in supporting the amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) again rejected the idea of a temporary ban on earmarks, arguing that Congress has already made enough reforms to the process.
“If people think that there’s some way we can improve that, let them do so. But to just carte blanche say ‘No more earmarks’ is unrealistic,” Reid said Tuesday.
Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said they were unsure how the vote would play out. “It’s a jump ball, and we can’t tell,” Durbin said.
Democrats are writing a possible alternative amendment that Durbin indicated might “tighten up” the earmark disclosure rules, but he noted that several ideas were in play and no decisions had been made.
Likewise, Republicans found themselves with stark divisions.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who signed on as a co-sponsor Tuesday morning, said no consensus decision was made during his party’s weekly Conference luncheon and that the GOP remains deeply divided between opponents of earmarking, supporters and a middle group — which includes Cornyn, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and other rank-and-file Members — who use earmarks but feel the system needs further reform. “People are all over the place,” Cornyn said.
Allard, an appropriator who is being courted by earmark foes, said he has not yet made up his mind but is wary of allowing the executive branch to have too much control over the federal purse strings. He said he believed the process is broken and that changes are needed. “We’ve gone too far, and we need to cut back our excesses,” Allard said.
The Republican leadership also is divided over the amendment, with Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) a co-sponsor while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is a former appropriator and longtime advocate of earmarks who has been cool to the DeMint amendment.
A sign of the division was McConnell’s announcement Tuesday at his Conference luncheon that he asked his earmark reform task force to delay releasing its recommendations to avoid influencing how members will vote. And McConnell, who rarely discusses upcoming vote totals or his own personal positions on issues that the Conference has no formal position, said Tuesday he remained undecided.
“Frankly, I’m not certain what the outcome will be. And I haven’t decided, personally, how I’m going to vote on that yet,” McConnell said.
Republican and Democratic members of the Appropriations Committee denounced the amendment and are pushing their colleagues to reject it. “What happens if we don’t say how the money should be spent with some specificity?” asked Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). “We’re just turning over billions of dollars to the administration to spend without any guidance from the people, and the people are supposed to govern America. That’s what the Constitution says. Those that want to turn over the spending to bureaucrats are standing the Constitution on its head.”
“The consensus is, it’s not a good idea,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who sits on the Appropriations panel. “I’m just not prepared, and I think a lot of my colleagues are not prepared, to acquiesce to the nameless, faceless bureaucrats ... making all those decisions.”
If Cochran, Reid and other opponents can keep the entire 29-member Appropriations Committee united, they should be able to defeat the amendment, particularly since it will almost certainly be subject to a 60-vote point of order.
In addition to Reid and Durbin, Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) — who served on the Appropriations Committee during his time in the House — have all said they will oppose the amendment.
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) appear to be leaning against it, while Delaware Democratic Sens. Joseph Biden and Tom Carper have said in recent days they support reforming the process but have stopped short of endorsing a moratorium.
DeMint has 14 co-sponsors, including McCain, Obama, Kyl, Clinton, Cornyn and Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).
Those Members are targeting rank-and-file Members, as well as at least three appropriators — Allard, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Republican and Democratic aides familiar with the two parties’ whip counts predict that DeMint will likely need to muster 35 to 40 of his Republican colleagues to sway enough Democrats and put it past the 60-vote threshold.
Senators on both sides of the aisle bristled at their presidential candidates’ positions in favor of the amendment.
“I’m a little bit disappointed,” Durbin said of both Obama and Clinton’s decision to support the amendment. Durbin added that it has created problems for Senate Democratic leaders.
“When all of the presidential nominees are in favor of a moratorium or abolition of earmarks — McCain, Clinton, Obama — you know, some Members have said to me, ‘Wait a minute, we’re supporting these people for president,’ and I’ve said, ‘Yeah, they can be wrong, too,’” Durbin told reporters. Durbin has been a prominent supporter of Obama.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), an appropriator, blamed the hubbub over the amendment on “a fever that comes out of the presidential campaign,” and Salazar said the issue was the product of “election-year politicking,” not good governance.