With their counterparts in the House forced to cut a deal with the GOP after taking a public relations beating over their handling of earmarks, Senate Democrats announced Wednesday that they will take a markedly different approach and will publicize all earmarks in spending bills as they are approved by the Appropriations Committee.
In a statement released by the spending panel Wednesday, Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said the committee is committed to increased sunshine and that “as a committee and as a Senate, we are committed to ensuring the public’s confidence in how these bills are written. We are moving forward with our bipartisan effort to ensure accountability and transparency in the appropriations process.”
The panel will publish a full list of earmarks and their sponsors on its Web site following markups. The earmark information also will include the amount being requested, the entity (or location if no entity is specified) that will receive the funding and the purpose of the earmark.
The committee also has posted the financial disclosure forms for its entire membership on its site, as well as letters from Senators who have requested earmarks certifying that neither they nor their spouses have a financial interest in any project they are promoting.
House Republicans, meanwhile, slowed action on the House floor to a crawl before striking a deal on earmarks with Democrats on Wednesday evening. Republicans had attacked Appropriations Chairman David Obey’s (D-Wis.) decision to delay listing earmarks and their sponsors until after bills pass the House floor.
Obey told reporters that Democratic and GOP leaders had an agreement in principle but he declined to discuss details until the deal was cemented. He did say the deal would allow for a “reasonable schedule” for the House to move the 12 spending bills while maintaining the rights of Members to object to earmarks on the floor.
A GOP aide familiar with the negotiations said the agreement includes a deal to bring all of the bills to the floor with earmarks included, except for the military construction and Homeland Security measures. Homeland Security currently is being debated on the floor.
Obey indicated that bills with fewer earmarks contained in them would move first, and large bills would move later in the schedule. “It will make people feel comfortable about their rights and the processes here,” he said.
Obey defended his initial decision to hold off on earmarks until the bills get to conference with the Senate. “It’s all governed by one simple question: How long does it take to screen Member requests?” he said.
Obey said he would like the House to stay in session until Saturday to make up for time lost on the floor. “We’ve got to keep moving these bills,” he said. “People don’t get what it takes to screen earmarks.”
Obey, who has engaged in some heated floor exchanges since Republicans decided to slow-walk the Homeland Security spending bill, appeared mollified by the deal. “I’ll be in a better mood when I get some sleep, I got none last night,” he said.
Following a House Democratic leadership meeting to discuss the impasse Wednesday afternoon, House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) said Democrats eventually might have to move to closed rules if Republicans continued to obstruct the bills. “It’s always an option, it’s always in the room,” she said. “I know we don’t want to, but our responsibility is to move this agenda forward.”
“I’ve been in three legislatures — state, local and federal — and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, calling the Republican actions holding up the Homeland Security bill “very childish.”
Appropriations bills historically are considered under open rules, and any move to restrict amendments would cut two ways — it would allow Democrats to move forward but would open them up to attacks from Republicans that they are afraid of debate.
Obey has warned that earmarks could be eliminated if Republicans try to exploit them as a political football. “I wonder how many Republicans would vote for my motion if I put it on the floor to end all earmarks?” he asked.
Republicans, meanwhile, sent out repeated updates exulting in just how slowly action was moving on the Homeland Security bill — only a few pages had been considered by Wednesday evening before the impasse was broken.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told his members at their weekly Wednesday meeting that Republicans will not let up on the issue. He told lawmakers to “bring reading material, bring your clips, bring your Game Boy to the floor, because it’s going to be a long night,” according to an aide familiar with the meeting.
Rules ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.) defended the GOP position amid criticism by Obey and others that Republicans have little high ground to claim in the earmark debate because earmark reforms were largely sparked by corruption scandals involving GOP lawmakers.
“It’s not about what we did, it’s about what they promised they would do,” Dreier said, adding that Democratic Members have approached him to voice their concerns about Obey’s decision to insert earmarks in conference reports.
“They have said ‘We are wrong in doing this’ and I think they’ve gotten the message from the American people on that,” Dreier said, while not naming the Democratic lawmakers he was quoting.
House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) called the Obey decision “indefensible” and took a jab at Democratic freshman lawmakers, who Putnam said were notably absent from the debate. “It’s an embarrassment to the new freshmen and that’s why they weren’t anywhere to be seen on the floor last night,” Putnam said.
Most Republicans have stopped short of calling for a ban on earmarks in this year’s appropriations process, but Dreier and Putnam indicated they would not oppose that if Obey attempts to enforce a blanket ban.
“If that decision were made that there weren’t going to be any earmarks at all, that’s something that would address the concerns that we’ve got,” Dreier said. Added Putnam, “That’s certainly an option as opposed to ‘Obey-Wan Kenobi’ deciding what goes in and what goes out.”
Republicans also are expected to announce at a press conference today that they have exceeded the magic number of 146 lawmakers signing on to a letter vowing to sustain President Bush’s vetoes of spending bills.
Bush has threatened to veto bills that exceed his spending requests, which would set up a confrontation later this year and tough votes for GOP lawmakers on popular spending bills such as Homeland Security and military construction and Veterans Affairs.