Bush Squeezed on Earmarks

White House Mulls Options

Posted January 18, 2008 at 6:26pm

Under pressure from anti-earmark conservatives on one side and senior appropriators on the other, the White House has remained tight-lipped about whether President Bush will end up addressing the more than 10,000 earmarks included in the fiscal 2008 omnibus appropriations bill.

As late as last week, conservatives had hoped Bush would follow the advice of Vice President Cheney and Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle and eliminate the earmarks en masse through the use of an executive order.

But in recent days, supporters of earmarked funding have mounted a vocal opposition to such a plan, and Republicans on Capitol Hill said it is now uncertain how the issue will play out.

In response to reports that the Bush administration was considering an executive order cutting earmarks, Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) last week warned Bush against cleaving the projects from the bill, arguing it was an inappropriate use of the president’s power and would override the will of Congress.

While the executive order option remains on the table, White House sources and Republicans on Capitol Hill have said that Bush could opt to send a rescissions package to Congress requesting the earmarks be eliminated. But unlike an executive order, that route would have virtually no chance of success, since neither the Democratic-controlled House nor Senate would take up such a measure.

However, that largely symbolic move could prove attractive to Bush, since it would allow him to publicly chastise Congress for loading up the omnibus with earmarks while giving Congress the ability to keep the earmarks intact.

On Friday, a diverse coalition of fiscal and social conservative organizations wrote Bush urging him to strip the projects. While the coalition is made up of fiscal conservative mainstays such as the National Center for Public Policy Research, National Taxpayers Union, Porkbusters.org, Taxpayers for Common Sense and American Conservative Union, the coalition also includes socially minded organizations such as the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum, CatholicVote.org and English First.

One Senate Republican aide familiar with the letter called it “very significant” because it is one of the rare occasions in which the party’s two ideological factions have coalesced around a fiscal issue.

Although fiscal conservative organizations for years have backed many of the social reforms supported by Christian conservatives, the two sides have often been at odds over earmark reform, particularly since many of the institutions receiving funding are religious or social in nature.

In their letter, the organizations argue that Bush should reject the idea of a rescissions package because it would not effect real change and urge the White House to eliminate all the earmarks in the bill.

“This situation requires strong action from the president, not transparent political ploys that fail to get the job done. For example, a rescissions package, in which the president submits a list of already-passed provisions for cancellation, would be the equivalent of doing nothing because it requires action from the very same Congress that passed the wasteful earmarks. … You have the authority and opportunity to put Congress back on the path to fiscal responsibility. We hope you will seize this opportunity and protect the American taxpayer from further abuse by ending the earmark era,” the organizations argue.

According to House and Senate Republicans, there are two factions within the White House in the earmark debate. One, reportedly led by Cheney and Nussle, has argued for using the issue as the centerpiece of a fiscal-responsibility rebranding effort not only of the Republican Party but also of Bush himself, who is facing a decidedly mixed legacy as president.

On the other side are more politically minded members of the White House and the House and Senate GOP, who worry scuttling the millions in funding to Congressional districts could hurt Republican incumbents already facing re-election challenges and give Democrats a ready-made campaign issue.

As a result, Republicans said, the signals out of the White House have been mixed, largely depending on who is talking. “We keep hearing different things,” one senior GOP aide acknowledged.