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A trio of House Republicans who are eyeing 2012 bids for statewide office succeeded in changing the GOP's stopgap spending measure in ways that could bolster their campaign credentials.
The free-wheeling amendment process that GOP leaders allowed on the continuing resolution, which would fund the government from March 4 through Sept. 30, touched off contentious debates on a range of politically motivated messaging amendments, including proposals from GOP lawmakers looking to raise their profiles ahead of 2012.
GOP Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.), Denny Rehberg (Mont.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) all won approval for amendments to the spending bill this week. Pence is mulling a run for governor after ruling out a 2012 presidential campaign, and Rehberg and Flake announced this month that they will run for Senate in 2012.
Rehberg disputed the notion that his amendment, which would bar funds for implementation of last year's health care overhaul law, has anything to do with his challenge to first-term Sen. Jon Tester.
"Actually, this is not about my campaign, this about doing the right thing and that is defunding ObamaCare," said Rehberg, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Department of Health and Human Services. "This has nothing to do with the Senate race, this has to do with representing the people of Montana and I think better representing the state and their philosophy."
Rehberg said his subcommittee chairmanship made him the natural choice to push the defunding amendment. He noted that he held 75 town hall meetings in his state during the previous Congress and has focused on repealing the law, a marquis legislative accomplishment for a fellow Montanan, Sen. Max Baucus (D).
Still, the Republican acknowledged his defunding effort and Tester's support of the law draw a sharp contrast for Montana voters — and the National Republican Senatorial Committee was quick to jump on it.
"Today's vote to defund ObamaCare highlights the stark contrasts between Montana Republicans and Senator Tester," NRSC Press Secretary Chris Bond said in a statement Friday "While Tester repeatedly put his love of ObamaCare ahead of the wishes and best interests of his state, Republicans have listened to the American people and today took decisive action to put a stop to the massive Tester-Obama health care overhaul. The differences could not be more clear for Montanans as they prepare to hold President Obama and Jon Tester accountable for their shared record in 2012."
Pence won adoption of an amendment that would bar all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, arguing that taxpayers should not subsidize the "largest abortion provider in America." The measure had the backing of 10 Democrats, and Pence hailed the vote as "a victory for taxpayers and a victory for life."
The Indiana lawmaker has been pushing to limit federal money for groups that provide abortions since 2007, when he first introduced legislation to bar federal funds under Title X of the Public Health Service Act, which provides health care services to low-income women, for any entity that performs abortions.
Flake, who plans to run for retiring GOP Sen. Jon Kyl's seat, is a fiscal conservative and ardent anti-earmark crusader who frequently pushes for amendments to spending bills. He offered a handful of amendments to the stopgap funding measure, including a proposal to zero out funding for the National Drug Intelligence Center, a pet project of the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). Flake won a rare victory with adoption of that amendment, which garnered the support of 45 Democrats in the addition to the vast majority of Republicans.
Flake, who announced his candidacy Feb. 14, disputed the notion that his decision to offer the amendments was fueled by his Senate bid.
"Most of these were drafted before," he said. "We've been meeting on these amendments long before Jon Kyl announced his retirement. It's the same amendments I've offered typically under an open rule before."
But the Senate aspirant acknowledged that his proposals would give him a record to point to on the campaign trail.
"That just goes with the territory," he said. "You have a record here, for good or for ill, and that's what people are going to be focused on. The reality is — if you're running for a Senate office, or governorship, or whatever else — you don't have time to be at home running across the state, so people have to judge you on your record here."
Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) has announced a bid to replace retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats. But Murphy did not offer any amendments to the continuing resolution.
Asked why he didn't seize the opportunity to offer an amendment, Murphy said, "I'm not going to change my style just because I'm running for different office."
"I'm proud of the fact that I'm not a show horse, and when I offer amendments or legislation, it's for substantive reasons and not for show," Murphy said.
But Murphy also said he plans to highlight his House voting record in his upcoming campaign.
"Running statewide as a Member of Congress is mostly a strength, but it can also be a liability," he said. "I have a very public and open and sometimes controversial record, and I'm willing to defend it back home. ... I have a strong record of fighting for Democratic principles and being elected in a Republican-leaning district, and, ultimately, I think that will be a strong selling point in Connecticut.
Rep. Robert Andrews said there was nothing wrong with GOP Members using the amendment process to strengthen their voting records with an eye toward future campaigns.
"In fairness, I think every Member is always looking to do that in some way, and there's nothing wrong with that," the New Jersey Democrat said. "Part of what we run on is our records as public servants, so I commend anyone who tries to do that."
But Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, accused Flake and Rehberg of "pandering to the extremists in their party" with their amendments. He said the approach would backfire.
"Republicans claimed to be all about jobs and the economy, but now that they're the majority in the House they're working on everything but," Schultz said. "At some point, they're going to be held accountable for this rhetoric on the campaign trail."