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DeMint Pushes Earmarks Fight

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) resumed his efforts to implement a series of new ethics and earmark reform rules Monday afternoon and warned his colleagues that he may force the chamber to remain in session through the August recess if Democratic leaders do not drop their objections to his demands.

DeMint proposed Monday to adopt the new Senate earmark rules — which, among other things, would require the Appropriations Committee to disclose all earmarks requested by individual lawmakers that have been included in spending bills — and then begin the long-stalled conference on a lobbying and ethics bill.

Pointing to a recent Congressional Research Service report stating Appropriations subcommittees have had varying degrees of success with implementing the new rules voluntarily, DeMint argued that “it’s clear we need a formal rule in place that applies to all committees” and warned that he could object to the start of the August recess if the rules are not adopted. “Maybe that would be a good thing,” he argued.

DeMint’s gambit — which Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was forced to object to — follows a similar showdown on the Senate floor just prior to the July Fourth recess.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were seconds away from agreeing to begin the ethics conference in late June when DeMint called the Republican cloakroom to remind McConnell of his long-standing hold on the bill. As a result, the agreement to name conferees collapsed and Democrats used the GOP mix-up as a chance to hammer Republicans on ethics.

DeMint has blocked the naming of conferees on the lobbying and ethics bill because Democrats included in the measure a set of Senate earmark reforms, despite the fact they apply to that chamber and do not need House approval to be put in place.

DeMint and a core group of GOP conservatives are expected to continue their tactical fight with Senate leaders as the chamber takes up appropriations bills later this year, many of which are packed with earmarks.

In an effort to appease DeMint and other opponents, Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) earlier this year announced that he was voluntarily imposing the rules on his committee. However, reviews by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense of the six appropriations bills agreed to by the full committee so far indicate that required disclosure of who has requested earmarks has been spotty.

For instance, TCS identified 188 earmarks worth more than $6 billion in the military construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill that are not attributed to either a specific Member of Congress or the Bush administration. Eighty-two other earmarks were attached to specific Members, while the total number of earmarks in the bill clocks in at a healthy 693 projects worth $17.1 billion, according to the group.

TCS also points out that even in those instances where earmarks are labeled, it can be difficult to identify them since they are scattered throughout the massive bills rather than grouped in one spot.

In its review of the Homeland Security spending measure, TCS notes the Senate’s “disclosure is far from perfect. While the earmarks are listed in the report, you have to look real close because the type is small and they are scattered far and wide throughout the report.”

Although a cursory review of the earmarks indicates that many of the most controversial types of spending have been avoided by Members, lawmakers have continued to look for federal funding for many locally important projects. For instance, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) inserted in the Interior spending bill $400,000 for a land swap with Doyon LTD, a tribal corporation in Alaska. The proposal, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, would allow the tribe to consolidate holdings around the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, where it hopes to conduct oil and gas exploration activities.

Likewise, the Interior bill also includes $1.5 million for completion of exhibits at the California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, which TCS notes is “one of nine earmarks worth $5.7 million” that Reid has secured.

All told, Member-requested earmarks in the Homeland Security, legislative branch, military construction, Commerce and Interior and Environment spending bills total more than 1,600 at a cost of $2.6 billion, according to the TCS analysis.