A special Senate GOP task force set up to help Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) navigate his Conference through the political waters of the earmarking process could expand its mandate to include broader spending and tax policy issues, Republicans said.
The diverse task force — which is chaired by Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar (Ind.) and includes Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (Miss.), conservative firebrand Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Sens. Mike Crapo (Idaho) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.) — has been holding member-only meetings for weeks, according to McConnell.
McConnell said Tuesday he asked the lawmakers to “work out a consensus on the earmark issue” and put together recommendations — but only if they can be embraced by the entire Republican Conference.
“I expect them to report back only if they can reach a consensus. We are not interested in having a report with a majority report and a minority report. We’re looking for a consensus,” McConnell said.
Task force participants are not discussing their deliberations until they agree on recommendations, which are due March 15. Yet some details have leaked out.
According to senior GOP aides familiar with the talks, the task force’s earmark recommendations will deal mostly with transparency. While these recommendations would be nominally aimed at increasing public access to information on earmarks, these aides said any changes would be minor.
In recent days, the task force also has discussed the possibility of expanding the scope of the proposals to include broader spending issues. GOP aides said one issue popular with Republicans that could be included is a shift to a biannual budget process, a move that would be opposed by appropriators on both sides of the aisle.
The task force also might consider how Congress handles tax bills. One leadership aide noted that “there’s a lot of money in Finance [Committee] bills” and lawmakers have favored interest groups by targeting tax breaks or other tax code changes.
Aides cautioned, however, that it’s not clear whether the broader ideas will be included — or whether the task force will agree to anything of substance. These aides point out that McConnell specifically tasked the group with producing only a single report with recommendations that could be supported by the entire GOP Conference. With conservatives such as Coburn and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) on one side and “Old Bull” appropriators such as Cochran, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and McConnell on the other, Republicans predict a deal could be difficult if not impossible.
On the House side, Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) sought to call what he considers to be the Republicans’ bluff on an earmark moratorium.
Obey issued a memo to Republicans in multiple-choice format asking them to check one of two boxes, stating whether they believed in a one-year moratorium and therefore would not be submitting earmark requests, or did not believe in a moratorium and would be submitting requests.
Obey spokeswoman Kirstin Brost said Obey called the memo his “anti-hypocrisy” memo, aimed at House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) repeated calls for a moratorium.
“Boehner says the Republican Conference opposes earmarks, but the Republican Conference has been very busy submitting their earmark requests. Which is it?” she asked.
Republicans sought to turn the tables, calling out Democrats for failing to endorse a bill sponsored by Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) that would suspend the earmarking process until a bipartisan panel drafted new rules.
“The response from House Republican[s] will be clear: we support the Wolf-Kingston-Wamp earmark moratorium, and call on the Democratic Leadership to bring it up for a vote immediately,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel wrote in a statement.
Kingston, who sits on the Appropriations panel, has said the bill was not intended to eliminate earmarks this year, arguing that new rules could be drafted quickly. Kingston cited the speed of passing the stimulus package as one example of what was possible when both sides are motivated.
Members of the conservative Republican Study Committee also lobbed criticism at Democrats on Wednesday after failing to win a similar amendment during a hearing on the fiscal 2009 budget.
“Once again, when it came time to put their money where their mouths are, Democrats failed miserably to enact the earmark reform that they have promised,” RSC Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) said in a statement. “Instead, Democrats seem to prefer to waste taxpayer dollars on monuments to themselves, fake prison museums and hippie museums.”
Democrats have argued that they reformed the process last year by passing rules requiring earmarks and their sponsors to be identified, and to verify that lawmakers receive no personal gain from the pursued earmarks. Democrats said Republicans wanted credit for calling for a “moratorium” while still getting their earmarks.
“It’s not a moratorium, it’s a press release,” Brost said. As of Wednesday afternoon, no Members had returned the questionnaire.
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.