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Sides Squirming as Earmark Vote Nears

Senate Democrats and Republicans continued their uneasy stare-down over a proposed one-year earmark moratorium that has drawn the support of the chamber’s fiscal conservatives and the three presidential candidates and the ire of “Old Bulls” and the Democratic leadership.

With no votes on the floor, lawmakers had little chance to lobby one another Wednesday. “I think most of our guys are waiting to see how the Democrats vote … [and] they’re waiting for us,” a GOP aide said.

Presidential hopefuls Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) are expected in the chamber for today’s budget resolution vote-a-rama. The three are backing the moratorium amendment sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

Both sides said it remains unclear how the vote will go, though it appears the amendment supporters are on the short end. They picked up Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who opposes the amendment, derided the proposal as little more than a public relations gimmick. “You never know where the votes are for sure, but the vast majority of Democrats will recognize this is just a publicity stunt,” Reid said Wednesday.

On the House side, Democratic leaders refused to divulge how they would handle the issue.

House and Senate Democratic aides said that while it appeared that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would move forward with some sort of earmark proposal, what it would look like — and when it would be announced — remained uncertain.

Democratic aides said it probably would not go as far as the DeMint proposal, potentially limiting the moratorium to earmarks on appropriations bills. A second alternative that has been mentioned would be to tie the savings from a moratorium to an infrastructure spending package cast as a jobs bill.

While considering such a ban, Pelosi sought Wednesday to differentiate between appropriations earmarks and those in authorization measures.

Appearing at a press conference following a Democratic forum to discuss the country’s infrastructure needs, Pelosi responded to an inquiry about whether an earmark ban would hurt related projects, given that bridges and roads are often funded by Congress with earmarked funds.

“Those are two separate subjects here,” Pelosi said, pointing to the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” included in the highway reauthorization bill in 2005.

“I see the value of earmarks,” Pelosi said, adding that she would like to see the House pursue a strategy of reduction and additional transparency in the request process. With partisan tensions in the House, she said, “I don’t see how we could have any earmarks this year.”

Pelosi later sought to clarify her remarks, stating: “I’m watching and waiting to see how we proceed.”

The fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, like its party, remains divided.

Rep. Mike Ross (Ark.), Blue Dog co-chairman for communications, defended earmarks as the only way for lawmakers to ensure funding goes to underserved areas. “Rural America loses when you eliminate earmarks,” he argued.

But Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), a prominent Blue Dog, said he supported a moratorium and that changes are needed.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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