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Earmark Talks Continue Into the Night at GOP Retreat

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — House Republicans were continuing closed-door talks about earmark reform into the evening at their retreat Friday, with the possibility looming that a Conference-wide policy on how Members request money for projects could emerge later tonight or Saturday.

Republicans convened at The Greenbrier resort here Thursday for their annual meeting, where an open and frank discussion about how far the party is willing to go to change the earmark process was expected to take center stage.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) addressed his Conference on Friday morning and dared Members to think big about how they can fix what voters increasingly believe is a broken system in Washington.

“We’re here today to ask ourselves: Are Republicans the party that can fix Washington? If so, what sacrifices are we willing to make to PROVE we are that party? We cannot do this without being bold and putting forth fresh solutions,” Boehner said, according to excerpts of his remarks. “In 1994 we made sacrifices. We gave up perks. We gave up privileges. We took risks. We thought big. We rolled dice. We need to go through this process today and tomorrow with the same mentality.”

Earmark reform is a key plank in the Boehner-led effort to rebrand his tarnished party before the November elections.

Options being discussed among Members include a temporary moratorium on all earmark requests or the development of a package of rules governing how earmarks are requested and doled out. Several Members already have begun taking reform into their own hands, vowing not to request any new earmarks.

Boehner, who has never personally requested an earmark, remained hopeful that Members would come to some resolution as the discussions continued into the dinner hour.

“The earmark process has become a symbol of a broken Washington. If we’re going to earn back our majority, we have to show the American people we’ll fix it,” he said in a statement. “There are various views on earmarks within our Conference. But we can all agree the status quo is unacceptable.”

In addition to the earmark discussion, the estimated 125 to 130 Members in attendance also heard presentations on the political landscape facing them in November and a campaign update from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.).

Furthermore, President Bush addressed Members and their families Friday afternoon. In his brief remarks, Bush — who has attended every House GOP retreat since he became president in 2001 — praised the bipartisan House leadership’s quick work to come up with a stimulus package. He said the agreement, reached Thursday, was a sound package and, without mentioning the Senate, he warned against holding up its movement by adding provisions.

“I strongly believe it would be a mistake to delay or derail this bill,” Bush told lawmakers at the retreat.

In addition, he implored Members to make the tax cuts enacted in 2001 permanent — a statement that received a standing ovation — and pleaded for an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that is set to expire Feb. 1.

“Unfortunately, the bill is set to expire in seven days,” Bush said. “The threat to America does not expire in seven days.”

While earmarks were a major topic of discussion, the influence of lobbyists wasn’t completely missing from the three-day retreat. The annual event is sponsored in part by the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit group that is run by lobbyists and funded by corporate contributions. And the scheduled keynote speaker at Friday night’s dinner is Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a high-powered Washington, D.C., lobbyist before being elected governor in 2003 and someone who is considered a potential vice presidential pick for the Republicans’ eventual White House nominee.

Beyond the retreat, one of the first opportunities for Republicans to make a statement about spending and fiscal discipline will be when the GOP Steering Committee meets to decide who will get the open seat on the Appropriations Committee.

Several Members are vying for the slot, including Cole and Reps. Dave Reichert (Wash.), Michael Turner (Ohio) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.). Flake is an ardent opponent of earmarks, and fiscally conservative groups have waged a vocal campaign on his behalf, though he is viewed as unlikely to get the appointment.

Looking even further down the road, Republicans will have to fill at least six vacancies on the Appropriations panel for next cycle if the current committee ratios hold. Reps. Dave Weldon (Fla.) and Jim Walsh (N.Y.) became the latest appropriators to announce their retirements last week.

The House GOP faces a treacherous field of open seats in November, and in his speech to Members, Boehner linked reform to Republican success at the ballot box.

“If we’re going to pick up seats in 2008, we have to strike a chord in the hearts of the American people — our base, and Republican-leaning independents alike,” he said. “We cannot win by singing the same old tune. Washington is broken. We need to give the American people reasons to believe we’ll fix it.”

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