Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have held preliminary talks on the possibility of moving new earmark reforms this year based, in part, on a set of recommendations from a special GOP task force, Democratic and Republican aides said.
The private discussions come as the Senate prepares to resume its often acrimonious debate over earmarks this week as part of a bill making technical corrections to the 2005 Transportation authorization bill.
Although aides to both McConnell and Reid confirmed that McConnell earlier this month met with Reid to discuss the task force’s recommendations, they declined to disclose details beyond saying Reid reacted positively. Reid and McConnell had “a good meeting,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said last week.
Republicans and Democrats familiar with the discussions stressed that no decisions have been made and that it is unclear whether the two leaders will actually work on a set of new reforms.
Many Democrats have reacted coolly to the idea of new earmark reforms, with some accusing Republicans of hypocrisy in championing the issue after allowing the number of earmarks to mushroom during their years in the majority.
“This is such a bipartisan issue, the idea that the Republicans are making the reforms after taking earmarking to an art form … is the height of hypocrisy, ridiculous hypocrisy,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), the leading Democratic lawmaker on the earmark reform issue. “I’d like to see the Republicans do what the old sneaker motto was: ‘Just do it’ yourselves.”
Likewise, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said that he does not believe further reforms beyond those included in last year’s ethics reform package are necessary and that Republicans are simply trying to distract the public from more pressing issues like the war and the economy.
“If I wanted to distract attention away from the cost of the war and the cost of the budget, I’d put the focus on earmarks. To me, it’s a distraction,” he said. “I’ll take a look at it … but I have a sneaking suspicion this is about the issue and keeping it alive” rather than an actual effort to reform the spending process, Nelson added.
But a group of conservative Senate Republicans have been on a long-running anti-earmark and spending campaign — and they see this week’s consideration of a package of technical corrections to the 2005 Transportation authorization bill as a prime platform for their cause.
In addition to attacking provisions in the bill adding millions in new spending, conservatives led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and others are taking aim at a controversial provision that was tacked on the original bill after it had passed the House and Senate that provided millions in funding for a road project in Coconut Grove, Fla., sought by a businessman connected to then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).
The $10 million earmark was added without the knowledge or vote of either the House or Senate as the bill was being prepared to be sent to the White House for President Bush’s signature.
The language had been sought by Daniel Aronoff, a real estate developer in Florida who donated heavily to Young’s re-election campaign that year.
Florida politicians — including local officials in Coconut Grove — have distanced themselves from the earmark, with local officials going so far as to attempt to refuse the funds. Young has denied inserting the funding into the bill after it had been approved by Congress and has previously indicated he would not oppose an investigation.
An amendment to the technical corrections measure by Florida Sens. Mel Martinez (R) and Bill Nelson (D) would set up a bipartisan, bicameral joint committee to investigate the Coconut Grove earmark. The eight-member panel would be chosen by the Majority and Minority Leaders in the Senate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The joint committee would be charged with creating two reports: the first an interim report due Aug. 1 and the second final report due Oct. 1.
According to a draft of the Martinez- Nelson amendment, the committee would be tasked with determining when the language funding the road in Coconut Grove was inserted into the bill, how it was done when the bill had already been passed by both chambers, who included the provision and why they did so.
The special committee would be given subpoena power and the authority to compel testimony by relevant parties and the preservation of documents and records pertaining to the issue.