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Byrd Pledges to Enforce Earmark Rules

Facing growing pressure from conservatives, Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) unexpectedly announced Tuesday that he would enforce new disclosure and conflict of interest rules for earmarks.

But while Byrd pledged to follow those guidelines for projects included in fiscal 2008 appropriations bills during the initial committee drafting and markup process, Democrats continued to resist efforts by a small group of conservative Republicans to have the disclosure package apply to the entire Senate and to every step of the appropriations process.

Although the rule does not appear to apply to earmarks inserted on the floor or during conference talks, Members now will be required to provide the Appropriations panel with conflict-of-interest certifications. Additionally, for the first time the public will have access to records detailing who requested individual earmarks and where the money will be spent.

“The changes that we are making in the appropriations process will help to restore confidence in the Congress,” Byrd said. “We are ending ‘business as usual’ in Washington, D.C. We will restore integrity to the process. We will increase accountability and openness, while we also will work to substantially reduce the number of earmarks in legislation.”

Byrd announced the rule changes in a press release issued minutes before Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) were scheduled to make a largely symbolic motion to impose the rules on the entire Senate late Tuesday morning.

The new committee rules mirror a package of reforms authored by DeMint that are included in the Senate’s broader ethics bill. But because that measure will not go into effect until President Bush signs the bill — and the House has not yet passed its version — DeMint’s band of reformers has been pushing for the disclosure provisions to be put in place through a unanimous consent agreement.

Democrats refused to agree to the UC shortly before the April recess, complaining that they had not been given adequate time to review the proposal. As a result, DeMint informed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) late last week that he would come to the floor at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday to renew his calls for a UC.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) objected to the UC on Tuesday, arguing that while he fully supports the new rules reforming the chamber’s ethics rules, “piece-by-piece is not the right way to accomplish our goal.”

DeMint said that while he was happy some form of the rules is now being applied, he criticized the amount of time it took Democrats to agree to the changes and the majority’s continued opposition to a chamber-wide rule. DeMint also critiqued the lack of enforcement provisions in the new rules.

“Once again, when faced with media scrutiny, Democrats finally budged on earmark reform. While I welcome the reversal by the Appropriations Committee to follow the rules we passed over 80 days ago, this is not nearly enough. This rhetoric is unenforceable and doesn’t cover all earmarks,” DeMint said, adding that “taxpayers deserve more than a wink and a nod. If the Senate is serious, it would put teeth behind these rules and enact them immediately. Instead, we get new excuses and delays from the majority.”

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