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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.

The Senate last voted on the issue earlier this month when it considered an amendment from Sens. Pat Toomey
(R-Pa.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to make the current two-year earmark moratorium permanent. The two are pushing for another vote as an amendment to the surface transportation bill on the floor.

Their first vote failed, 40-59. Heller voted for the ban but could find himself in a difficult spot if there is a vote on the Reid provision.

If he votes in favor of the Reid provision, he runs the risk of drawing the ire of conservatives, who see the earmark issue as a test of lawmakers’ fiscal conservative bona fides.

If he votes against the provision, he would be voting against 1,500 needed jobs in the state, Democrats contend, a move that could hurt his bid to win election in November. He is running against Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) to fill Ensign’s seat.

A senior GOP aide said that if the Johanns amendment does get a vote, Heller needs to make the case that this is a Reid issue. But the aide conceded that it would put him in a no-win situation.

Democratic and Republican aides acknowledged that, if there is a vote, both sides could claim some semblance of victory.

Republicans said that if Reid blocks a vote on the amendment, it would look as if the Democratic leader is trying to keep this from being debated on the Senate floor and cravenly protecting his members from taking tough votes. If Reid does allow a vote, then the issue would get a lot more attention and would once again put Democrats on the record on the issue.

Democratic aides believe that a vote would put more of a dent in Heller’s re-election campaign than it would hurt Democrats, given that they have already voted on the issue recently.

Reid argues that the provision is not an earmark because the money was already appropriated for the Nevada Department of Transportation seven years ago. The language is needed because the rail project is no longer expected to use magnetic levitation technology.

“There is no new spending in this provision, which provides Nevada with additional flexibility and supports more than 1,500 jobs in a state that has the highest unemployment rate in the country,” Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said.

But Johanns and others disagree. “Everybody has promised there are no earmarks in this bill,” Johanns said last week when he unveiled his amendment. “I have found one, and it needs to go away.”

McCaskill’s office told Roll Call that she supports the Johanns amendment.

Erich Zimmermann, a senior policy analyst with government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, also believes the provision is an earmark and highlights the flawed earmarking process.

“If you win an earmark and the project doesn’t happen, then maybe it wasn’t as important as you thought it was and doesn’t warrant special treatment later on to send it to your state anyway,” Zimmermann said.

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