Democrats Scrub Bill of Targets

Posted May 20, 2008 at 5:10pm

Senate appropriators and Democratic leaders have produced a supplemental spending bill that, while heavy on domestic spending, is largely free of earmarks.

While the bill includes dozens of earmarks and other “Member-directed” spending provisions, the vast majority appear either directly related to war costs or the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Democratic leadership aides said the decision to limit extraneous spending in the supplemental package was made by Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in an effort to limit the number of Republicans willing to try to stall the bill or uphold Bush’s veto threat.

In fact, by late Tuesday evening Senate Democrats had cut a number of earmarks and other controversial provisions from the bill that could result in it being held up. According to a draft list obtained by Roll Call, Democrats cut earmarks sponsored by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), as well as an earmark backed by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) to continue a controversial clean coal power plant technology.

“Sen. Byrd and Democratic leadership went the extra mile in order to try and prevent Senate Republicans from playing games with this bill,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. “It didn’t stop House Republicans from playing games last week, but we’ll see if it works in the Senate.”

Democratic leadership aides said leadership staff responsible for removing language that Republicans could use to hold up the measure are not targeting any earmarks that made the committee cut.

GOP aides acknowledged that holding up the bill on the basis of earmarks is not a likely option, even for the Conference’s fiercest anti-earmark legislators. “There’s not really a whole lot of chances to kill the supplemental,” one GOP aide said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) — the Democrats’ lone anti-earmark lawmaker in the Senate — said Tuesday that she hoped the restraint shown by her colleagues is a sign that Members are beginning to take the issue seriously, particularly on the issue of “air-dropped earmarks” that are added during a conference.

“I think we’re making progress. I don’t think we’re pure yet … [but] there’s a broad consensus that we don’t air-drop earmarks,” she said.

This year’s supplemental includes only a modest number of earmarks, most of which are directed at infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf Coast.

One earmark that had been originally included that has drawn scrutiny in the past is an extension for the FutureGen clean-coal power project in Illinois. Backed by Durbin and Bond — whose state could see economic benefits thanks to the project’s proximity to St. Louis — the earmark would extend a cooperative agreement between the Energy Department and consortium of private investors to build the plant.

The proposal would create a coal power plant that would sequester carbon dioxide emissions in a limestone deposit below the proposed facility as a way to limit its global warming effects. The project — projected to cost more than $1 billion — has been attacked by government watchdog groups and environmentalists as a waste of taxpayer funding. Conservatives have also chafed at the fact that the project’s private consortium of investors includes a Chinese company that will ultimately be able to use the technology developed with taxpayer dollars to build plants in China.

Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker said the earmark is simply an extension of a project that has met all environmental requirements and is important to domestic energy production. “This is a critically important project for the country, especially at a time of rising energy prices,” Shoemaker said.

But in the end, Democrats pulled the earmark as part of their effort to trim down controversial provisions that could snag the bill on GOP complaints.

Meanwhile, Senate floor action on the supplemental remained in flux as Senate Democratic leaders sought to determine the procedural path for a bill that was arriving in the Senate in two parts and without the war funding it was intended to carry. A revolt by House Republicans last week prevented the war funding from passing, and the Senate received only two House “amendments” containing restrictions on war operations and domestic funding for GI bill education programs and an extension of unemployment benefits.

Additionally, Reid must deal with the $10 billion added by the Senate Appropriations Committee, as well as the absence of Senators, including as ailing Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and presidential contenders Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Reid proceeded Tuesday to the domestic spending portion of the bill, with the separate vote on war funding expected later in the week. On the domestic component, Democratic aides said the Appropriations Committee version would likely fall prey to GOP procedural maneuvers. After that occurs, a slimmed down version of the bill will likely be offered.

It was unclear whether even a version that does not include provisions regarding immigration and other topics would be able to garner the 60 votes needed to survive a filibuster. Senate Republicans, however, were quietly indicating that they would likely put up only a modest fight, rather than a full-scale filibuster because of their concern over delaying troop funding.

“Exactly how we’re going to get from where we are today to getting money for the troops, as I indicated, is murky,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “All of the other things that have been added are troublesome and will draw a veto. So that bill isn’t going to become law. … Once the veto is sustained, we’ll have a chance to figure out exactly how to actually enact this legislation and get the funding to the troops.”

A senior Senate GOP aide was more blunt, saying, “We don’t know how Reid is going to do this thing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some Republicans decided to vote on this to get this process over with.”

As of press time, it did not appear that any votes on the measure would occur until today at the earliest.