Bush May Target Earmarks

Posted January 11, 2008 at 5:38pm

The White House may link a possible executive order eliminating thousands of earmarks with a call for reprogramming the funding, perhaps through a direct rebate to taxpayers or by putting the savings into children’s health care or bridge repair programs, according to House and Senate Republicans close to the issue.

Although no final decision has been made on whether President Bush will in fact sign an executive order, Republicans said it is increasingly likely and that discussions of linking it to a taxpayer rebate or funding reprogramming indicate Bush may be looking to make fiscal responsibility a centerpiece of his domestic legacy.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leading opponent of earmarking who has discussed the issue with the administration, said he believes Bush will take the controversial step despite some pressure from GOP incumbents and appropriators who argue the earmarks should be left alone.

“I’m more confident than ever that the president will issue the executive order. He has consistently opposed backdoor earmarks and this will enforce his policy. He’s not going to let Congress thumb its nose at him and waste billions of tax dollars in the process,” DeMint said.

DeMint added, “[Bush] now has a chance to take a bold stand on behalf of American taxpayers and secure a lasting legacy on this issue.”

A senior Senate Democratic aide dismissed the likelihood that an executive order will be signed, pointing out that vulnerable Republicans facing re-election this year will vigorously oppose having their earmarks taken away. “I would be very surprised if [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell [R-Ky.] would let this happen,” the aide said, noting that McConnell has secured numerous earmarks of his own and has long supported the practice. “While there is a lot of huffing and puffing, at the end of the day Senate Republicans will end up revolting against the president” if he does move to block funding for the earmarks, the aide said.

For weeks, conservative activists have privately worried that McConnell — a former appropriator who has often been at odds with DeMint and other reformers in his party — was quietly attempting to scuttle the executive order, which has reportedly been championed by Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle and Vice President Cheney.

But Josh Holmes, spokesman for McConnell, said the Republican leader has not taken a position on the issue of the executive order and has not discussed the matter with the White House.

“Sen. McConnell has not had a conversation with the White House about an executive order pertaining to earmarks. However, Sen. McConnell worked extensively with the White House to deliver a budget to the president that met his top line, and is eager to continue to work with the president to deliver further fiscal responsibility for American taxpayers,” Holmes said.

While DeMint and other conservatives had hoped Bush would make a decision prior to his trip to the Middle East, Republicans on Capitol Hill now say an announcement of a decision could be put off until the State of the Union address, particularly if Bush decides to ask Congress to put the money into a specific program. For instance, Republicans said Bush could call on Congress to reprogram the money toward SCHIP, cancer research or bridge construction accounts, all of which are high-profile public priorities and would be extremely difficult to oppose for Democrats and Republicans unhappy with the loss of their earmarks.

Less likely, but potentially more flashy, is the idea of sending taxpayers checks with their share of the savings. Although the size of those checks would be modest — one fiscal restraint activist said a back-of-the-envelope estimate could put the number as low as $50 per person — it would almost certainly be widely popular with voters and difficult to resist. But such a plan would be exceedingly difficult to put together, and could end up costing millions in processing and mailing fees, Republicans said, adding that the other ideas are much easier to enact and would have a similar public relations effect.