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Approps Vows To Cut Earmarks

Senate appropriators have warned their colleagues that there will be “significant” cuts in the money set aside for Members’ earmarks in this year’s spending bills and that the current anti-earmark climate on Capitol Hill likely will limit the types of projects that will get funding.

The warnings have come even as Democrats in the Senate appeared to be moving to block efforts by Republicans to strip out earmarks included in the emergency supplemental spending bill.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has not yet set an overall limit similar to the House’s 50 percent reduction in earmark spending from last year. But a committee aide said Tuesday that Byrd will make significant cuts in both the overall cost of earmarks in this year’s spending bills as well as the number of earmarks that will be included.

“Sen. Byrd has informed his colleagues that there will be a significant reduction in the number of earmarks and the amount of money,” an aide to Byrd said.

Additionally, in letters sent to lawmakers by the various Appropriations subcommittees, committee leaders included additional limits on earmarks that are new this year.

For instance, in a letter to lawmakers outlining the process for applying for earmarks to this year’s Interior appropriations bill, the Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior and environment notes that while the “Senate Appropriations Committee is not adopting a discrete number … there will be a ‘substantial’ reduction in earmarks in the Senate bills. We are not limiting the total number of requests that Members may submit to the Subcommittee, but unlike past years we are not asking you to prioritize more than 10 of those requests.”

The subcommittee on the Interior and environment also warns that given the current cloud of ethics controversy hanging over the appropriations process, it is unlikely programs not normally the subject of earmarks will be opened up.

“If we haven’t earmarked an account in the past, it’s unlikely we’ll start now, particularly given the overall climate,” the letter explains. “For example, we do not earmark increases in basic operating funds for individual National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, or other such facilities. Thus, asking for an operations increase for a national park or a national forest in your state is likely to fall on deaf ears.”

Several other subcommittees have issued letters with similar wording to the one sent out by the Interior panel.

But thanks to the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) included new Senate disclosure rules for earmarks in a piece of legislation needing President Bush’s signature, the committee has put off requiring Members to identify potential conflicts of interest or personal benefit until that bill is passed.

Although Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is expected today to ask for unanimous consent to put the rules in place for the supplemental, GOP and Democratic aides said it was unlikely lawmakers would agree.

However, lawmakers have been warned that should the supplemental bill be signed by Bush before markups begin in June, they will be required to comply with the new conflict-of-interest disclosure rules in a separate process.

“If these new procedures are adopted by the Senate, your office will be responsible for filing the necessary paperwork. Unfortunately, much of this is still up in the air, so it’s not possible for the subcommittee staff to answer specific questions at this time. Our point here is to bring this potential change to everyone’s attention,” the Interior panel warns.

Similar provisions were included in most of the other earmark request letters sent to lawmakers earlier this year. However, despite the assumption the new rules will be in place, none of the request letters reviewed by Roll Call required lawmakers to disclose any financial conflicts of interest.

Meanwhile, Democrats at press time were delaying consideration of amendments offered by DeMint and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) targeting a series of earmarks in the supplemental bill, ranging from relief for Christmas tree farmers to a $2 million earmark for the University of Vermont. A source close to the issue said late Tuesday that while Reid and other leaders put off consideration of the amendments until at least today to review them, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) indicated to DeMint that she would continue to object to his amendments coming up.

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