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Earmark Fight Poses Problem for Harry Reid, Dean Heller

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will open himself up to conservatives’ criticism if he fights for a $45 million earmark that would create jobs in his home state of Nevada.

With an increasingly gloves-off, partisan mentality permeating the Senate, an amendment targeting a 2005 earmark for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could pose political problems for Democrats and for Reid’s home-state colleague, GOP Sen. Dean Heller.

Sen. Mike Johanns has been pushing for a vote on his proposal to strip out language in the Senate’s two-year surface transportation bill that the Nebraska Republican argues is an earmark for Reid. The Nevada-specific provision would allow that state’s Department of Transportation to use $45 million from a 2005 high-speed rail earmark for other transportation initiatives, likely to help fund a road to McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

Johanns contends that the provision violates an agreement in the Senate to forgo earmarks for the current Congress and further erodes the trust of the American people in their government.

While the amendment might appear to be a no-brainer for Republicans who have made the elimination of earmarks a signature issue over the past few years, the possibility of a vote poses political problems for Reid and especially for Heller, who is seeking his first full term after being appointed last year to fill the seat of former Sen. John Ensign (R). Heller has been largely silent on the issue, despite coverage of the amendment by Nevada media outlets.

In a brief interview Monday, Heller said his initial reaction is that it is not an earmark, but he wants to reserve judgment until he reads the language of the proposal. “It’s not for a specific purpose, and it’s not new money,” Heller said. “I want to see it.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to take a public position on the issue. His support or opposition could prove crucial to whether Johanns gets a vote.

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders are working to create a list of amendments to the $109 billion reauthorization bill that would get votes, and they have not yet decided whether Johanns’ proposal will be on the final list, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. Debate on the bill could slip into next week.

While Reid and certain other institution-minded Senators, including some Republicans, are unabashed supporters of lawmakers’ right to direct spending back to their states, it doesn’t behoove Democrats to have yet another earmarks-related vote, as the issue has become unpopular and a symbol of government waste.

A vote in favor of the Reid language could open up Democrats, who are battling to keep their majority in the Senate, to criticism that they are unwilling to make the tough choices needed to help bring down the deficit.

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