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It’s Obey Vs. GOP in Earmark Fight This Week

David Obey is mad as hell, and he may not take it any more. [IMGCAP(1)]

Seeking to blunt a chorus of criticism over his plan to dump thousands of earmarks into conference reports, the Wisconsin Democrat, who also happens to chair the House Appropriations Committee, said Monday he would publish a list of earmarks before August while warning that if the GOP “demagogues” the issue he might chop pork from this year’s bills altogether.

That last part about shutting down the pork train appears a little dubious, however, given the outcry that certainly would come from his fellow House Democrats if he were to suddenly cut

them off from the pet projects they are finally in a position to fund.

As he prepares to bring the first four annual spending bills to the floor this week, starting with the Homeland Security measure, Obey held an 82-minute session with reporters on Monday, in which he laid out an extensive case for delaying the disclosure of earmarks and fought back at charges that Democrats had reneged on their promise to bring new transparency to the earmark process.

Obey said there simply has not been enough time to vet the 32,000 requests for earmarks — more than 73 per Member — and noted that appropriations bills already are three weeks late.

“It is not a matter of choice,” Obey said. “It’s not that I’m not disclosing them. We ain’t got anything yet.”

Obey said he anticipated House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) will try to use the open rule to grind the appropriations bills to a halt. “Boehner is desperate to find something Republicans can look good on,” Obey said.

Obey’s counteroffensive came as Republicans did as Obey predicted, and vowed to put up a vigorous fight this week.

“Does the majority really expect lawmakers to support slush funds for secret earmarks and simply take it on faith that they’ll be spending taxpayer dollars wisely?” Boehner asked. He said Republicans would use “every opportunity” to restore the ability to challenge individual earmarks on the House floor.

In a coordinated effort, House Republican leaders and members of the conservative Republican Study Committee are expected to use procedural tactics to slow down consideration of the four spending bills on the schedule and are willing to “shut the place down” if necessary, according to a conservative GOP aide.

RSC Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) are expected to spend all day on the House floor today, and Members and staff were working Monday to coordinate the best strategy.

“We’re going to force [Democrats] to go on the record to defend themselves,” the aide said.

The fireworks could make for a particularly long and ugly week, in stark contrast to the bipartisanship that usually accompanies appropriations bills.

But Obey warned of retaliation.

“If we get into a process where they are demagoguing earmarks there will be no earmarks for anybody,” Obey said.

And although Obey noted that he has asked for an open rule, he implied there may be “consequences” if the Republicans abuse it.

Obey acknowledged that his plan will prevent lawmakers such as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) from seeking to strike individual earmarks with amendments on the House floor, but Obey called that process a “pro forma” process that has never succeeded.

“That’s been a meaningless exercise for as long as I’ve been around here,” he said, noting that Members are afraid of voting to nix an earmark for fear that their own earmarks could be targeted in turn.

Obey said several of his subcommittee chairmen wanted to put earmarks in the bills, which would allow them to put out press releases bragging about them, but Obey said he has not had time to sign off on them. Obey, under new House rules, must sign off on every earmark.

Obey said a series of factors conspired to prevent the committee from finishing the work of vetting projects, including a specific request by Boehner and Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) for a delay in the deadline for getting requests in to the committee.

Obey also blamed Republicans for failing to finish last year’s spending bills, forcing Democrats to clean up the mess. The committee also has had to spend time on the Iraq War supplemental, as well as on reviving the panel’s investigations staff largely disbanded by Lewis last year.

Obey said considerable staff time also was spent complying with a subpoena for information from the San Diego U.S. attorney investigating Congressional corruption. The committee also has ramped up oversight of the administration, holding 224 hearings compared with 117 in the previous Congress, Obey said.

Obey also defended his decision to only disclose requests that the committee has decided to fund, instead of the tens of thousands of requests that don’t make the cut.

“I don’t want the Congress to take responsibility for those pieces of crap,” Obey said.

If it looks like a fun week in the House, the process is not likely to be any less partisan in the Senate, where conservatives say they will be demanding that stringent earmark rules formally take effect before they allow any bill to move to conference with the House. But given the Senate schedule, that could take some time.

The Senate Appropriations Committee starts its spending season this week with markups of two measures that would fund military construction projects and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security.

John Bray, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), said the aim is to mark up six bills before the end of June, while finishing up the remaining six in July.

Of course, July also is when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he will start bringing appropriations bills to the floor. But those measures may have to compete for space with a children’s health care measure and the farm bill.

Regardless, Senate GOP conservatives, who prevented their own Republican leaders last year from passing appropriations bills, are gearing up for an even deeper ideological struggle against what they perceive is Democrats’ penchant for overspending.

Conservative likely suspects, such as GOP Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.), can be expected to strike out on their own, with or without the blessing of leadership, in trying to thwart passage of appropriations bills they find objectionable.

“One of the concerns among conservatives is that they feel isolated, that there’s no GOP strategy [on appropriations], and the president can’t be counted on to draw a line in the sand on spending,” said one Senate GOP aide. The aide said President Bush’s acquiescence to the Democrats’ $17 billion-plus in additional spending on the most recent war supplemental shows he cannot be trusted to veto spending bills, despite his administration’s repeated vows to do so.

All that portends a long slog on the Senate floor for most appropriations bills, not to mention a difficult path to conference with the House.

“I think it’s going to be a very long and difficult process,” said Coburn spokesman John Hart, when asked whether his boss or other Republicans would force time-consuming procedural votes during debate on spending bills.

Angry with Obey’s original decision to withhold earmarks until conference, Coburn already has decided to block any bill from proceeding to a House-Senate conference committee until earmarks are disclosed.

“Taxpayers should not have to wait for search warrants, indictments or Rep. Obey’s spare time to discover how Congress is spending their money,” Hart wrote in an e-mail. “If Rep. Obey is having difficulty handling 36,000 earmark requests, he can simply say no and reject them outright. He is not a helpless victim.”

Senate conservatives also can be expected to continue their push for the Senate to formally adopt earmark transparency rules as well as a rule prohibiting the insertion of earmarks in conference reports unless two-thirds of the Senate votes to keep them in. If those rules are not adopted prior to attempts to send appropriations bills to conference, Senate Republican aides said conservatives might act to block those measures from proceeding.

Susan Davis contributed to this report.

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