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Obey to Hold Earmarks Until Conference

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said Tuesday he would not include earmarks in appropriations bills until they reach conference, angering some of his Republican counterparts and prompting accusations that Democrats were going against their pledge to reform and bring transparency to the earmarking process.

Obey said because of the delay of the deadline for earmark requests Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) had sought, along with the crush of business the committee has dealt with since the beginning of the year, the spending panel has not had time to fully vet each earmark.

“We’ve been a little busy, first off, dealing with last year’s mess” and with the war, Obey said.

Obey said by waiting until conference reports, he will have more time to make sure abusive, embarrassing earmarks do not make the final cut.

“It’s my job to protect the committee,” he said.

Any such earmarks dropped into the conference report will comply with House disclosure rules, Obey promised.

“If we choose to insert earmarks in conference, it will be under the rules that require every one to be inserted by name,” he said.

But Republicans complain that Obey’s decision effectively bars Members from attempting to strike individual earmarks on the House floor, and they fear Democrats could use the threat of losing earmarks as a club over Republicans.

Lewis himself ripped Obey’s plan. He said he did not seek as long an extension on earmark requests as Obey granted, and he complained that consideration of Bush administration earmarks also was being delayed.

“It’s a fundamental violation of our committee, and our committee wouldn’t be around for long if we do that,” Lewis fumed, adding that under Obey’s plan, “You set aside a pool of money that just sits there,” until Obey decides in conference how to spend it.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who offered 39 amendments on the floor to strip earmarks last year, albeit with scant success, complained air-dropping earmarks into conference reports would mean none would see the light of day until it was too late to do anything about them.

“As bad as the earmark process is now, this would make it immensely worse,” Flake said. Flake noted that he had praised the Democratic earmark reforms in January as at least better than what the Republicans had managed to accomplish.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said Obey’s plan could make sense if his real aim is to get the Senate to show its hand on earmarks first, but he said Obey needs to reassure Republicans that their earmarks will not be shortchanged.

“If Members think it’s going to be majority rules in conference, it’s going to be tough to get Republican support,” Kingston said.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said Democrats had been running away from earmark reforms, citing the allegation that Appropriations subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) had threatened the earmarks of Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).

“George Orwell would be proud to hear a party say they will be at forefront of reforming the earmarking process only to do the opposite,” Hensarling said. “I think the Democrats have spoken loudly and clearly that they don’t intend to do anything about the earmark mess. They are in full retreat.”

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said the move “seems like another broken promise when it comes to delivering an open and deliberative Congress.” Kennedy said limiting the review of earmarks to conferences could increase the chances for mischief, not decrease them.

Obey dismissed the GOP’s complaints, specifically those of Lewis.

“I don’t know who Jerry is to lecture anyone about how to pass an appropriations bill,” Obey said, noting last year’s appropriations logjam.

Obey also said that as far as his treatment of administration earmarks are concerned, he was trying to engage in a “civics lesson that earmarks don’t start with the Congress, they start with the executive branch.” Obey said the bills will spell out the administration’s requests and earmarks in detail.

“If that offends Jerry, that’s too bad,” Obey said.

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