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Earmark Plan Unsettled

Despite mounting pressure from conservatives on Capitol Hill and within the Bush administration to take a firm stand against Congressional earmarking, the White House remained split over how best to handle the situation, with neither anti-earmark forces nor supporters of the controversial practice appearing to gain any ground Tuesday, House and Senate Republicans said.

Meanwhile, it appears that in the waning hours of the previous session, lawmakers crafting the massive fiscal 2008 omnibus appropriations bill eliminated a number of prized earmarks that were pushed by veteran lawmakers, including a $2 million provision funding a controversial National Archives facility in Anchorage, Alaska, connected to former business partners of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Although White House sources would only say that no decisions have been made on how, or even whether, Bush would address the earmark issue in the coming weeks, Republicans on Capitol Hill said it appears the White House, like the broader GOP, has become increasingly split between conservative reformers and those who see earmarks as politically necessary.

According to White House sources and Congressional Republicans, a number of proposals have been floated internally. For instance, reform advocates have argued for an executive order eliminating the more than 10,000 earmarks in the omnibus bill or issuing a recisions package as part of the State of the Union address and tying it to some other economic or domestic spending policy initiative. But those proposals have run into resistance within the administration and on Capitol Hill over concerns that Congress would take such actions as a sign of war on lawmakers and could mean an extremely difficult year for Bush.

One option that has been mentioned recently — and appears to have the backing of some Republicans who support earmarks — would be for Bush to make a forward-looking statement on earmarks either in the State of the Union or in a separate speech calling on Congress to begin the process of weaning itself off earmarks. But conservatives have rejected this and similar proposals as being little more than symbolic rhetorical flourishes and continue to push the White House to take firm action.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leader of Senate conservatives, argued that how the issue is resolved will be pivotal in how Bush’s legacy is shaped. “This is a pivotal test for our party and our president. This will signal to America if we have learned the lessons of 2006 or if we are going to continue to wander in the wilderness. The president has an opportunity to secure a real fiscally responsible legacy. I hope he doesn’t allow big spenders to talk him out of doing the right thing for taxpayers,” DeMint said Tuesday.

However, with none of these proposals appearing to gain much traction, Republicans familiar with the White House’s internal struggles said it now appears senior staffers are looking for a middle ground that can allow them to take some sort of substantive action while avoiding an all-out brawl over spending with Congress.

But Republicans said it is increasingly difficult to envision what that middle ground may look like and warned that it is likely someone will come away angry from this fight. “Sometimes there is no middle ground and you have to do the right thing,” a Senate GOP aide said, adding that “the question they have to ask is whether or not people are clamoring for more ‘Bridges to Nowhere.’”

Meanwhile, it appears that House and Senate negotiators cut a number of expensive or controversial earmarks out of the 2008 appropriations as part of their effort to winnow down the omnibus bill to avoid a presidential veto.

Although watchdog groups are continuing the slow process of combing through the bill’s thousands of pages, researchers at Taxpayers for Common Sense already have identified a handful of building projects that appropriators cut to pass the bill.

According to a preliminary review, in addition to cutting the $2 million archives project in Alaska, appropriators also eliminated a $21 million federal building construction project proposed by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.); a $2.6 million federal courthouse construction project included in the Senate spending bill by Shelby; and an $18 million courthouse project backed by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas). Conferees also cut hundreds of millions in proposed funding for the St. Elizabeths mental institution in Washington, D.C.

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