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Earmarks Under Fire

Senate Republican budget hawks are urging President Bush to use an executive order or presidential signing statement to block some of their fellow lawmakers from adding earmarks or pet projects to the fiscal 2007 continuing resolution.

The Senators’ call for help from the Bush administration comes as Senators, House Members and K Street lobbyists have begun pushing agencies to ensure funding for earmarks included in appropriations bills passed by the two chambers last year but never sent to the president.

In a Feb. 7 letter to Bush, the group of fiscal conservatives led by GOP Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) urged Bush to make good on his State of the Union pledge to oppose earmarks.

Noting that Bush “articulated a forceful policy to reform non-legislative earmarks” in future appropriations bills, the letter calls on the “administration [to] take an equally strong stance with regard to [the CR], to clarify that agencies of your administration will not be bound or give any preference to earmarks contained in committee reports or in direct communications from Members of Congress or their staff.”

The group has asked Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman in private meetings to urge Bush to use either an executive order or signing statement to explicitly prohibit agency officials from using funds in the CR to pay for these projects and programs unless they are in the national interest, an aide to one of the lawmakers said.

It is highly unusual for Members of Congress to seek a signing statement essentially undercutting the efforts of their colleagues, and it comes at a time when Bush’s use of the controversial tool is under intense scrutiny in the House and Senate.

DeMint told reporters Wednesday that he and other conservatives have become increasingly concerned with the likelihood that Members will use their influence with federal agencies to “back-fund” earmarks included either in committee reports last year or multiyear earmarks that were included in the fiscal 2005 or fiscal 2006 spending bills.

DeMint said discussions with Portman and other administration officials led the group to “feel confident they will not honor nonauthorized earmarks.” But the conservative lawmakers also are asking for direct involvement from the White House to make clear that the administration’s policy is to oppose earmarks in general, he said.

DeMint acknowledged that blocking funding for earmarks included in committee reports from last year — which were written while both chambers were controlled by the GOP — could be politically costly in Republican-leaning states and districts. But he said this step is necessary to restore the integrity of the federal appropriations system, regardless of the near-term political pain. “Whether it’s Republican or Democrat, a lot of us feel this had gotten so far [out of control] … that we just felt we had to stop it.”

An aide to Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) dismissed the bid, noting Byrd and House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) wrote the CR to eliminate earmarks and that they expected no funds to be used for them. “Sen. Byrd and Congressman Obey made it clear … that there are to be no earmarks in this legislation,” the aide said, adding that there is “no expectation that earmarks from previous years will continue” under the bill.

Meanwhile, it appears unlikely that Republicans will mount an effort to filibuster the CR over the next week and a half, although several lawmakers are expected to use procedural moves to drag out debate up to the Feb. 15 deadline for passing the measure. Despite dire warnings over the past week from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that the GOP would attempt to block the bill, lawmakers and leadership aides said no such move is in the offing.

One GOP leadership aide said that while Coburn and at least one other Member could use procedural hurdles to slow consideration, the Republican Conference has no interest in forcing a showdown with Reid that could result in a repeat of the 1995 government shutdown that hurt Republicans politically.

“Shutting down the government always goes really well for us,” the aide quipped.

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