Senate GOP Bid to Overhaul Earmarks Stalls

Posted July 28, 2008 at 6:14pm

With his party firmly focused on using gas prices to pump up its flagging electoral hopes, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has quietly shelved plans to implement earmark reform proposals before the August recess, raising doubt as to whether the GOP will change the way it funds pet projects.

McConnell, under pressure from conservatives, earlier this year convened a hand-picked task force chaired by Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) to draft consensus reforms on how Republicans would secure funds for specific home-state projects. McConnell’s panel included Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a longtime backer of earmarks, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has taken the lead in conservatives’ fight against the practice.

Lugar and Coburn said last week that they did not know the status of the reforms and that McConnell took over the issue once the task force completed its work.

“Only Sen. McConnell can gauge what he wants to take up,” Lugar said. Coburn agreed, saying he was unsure what the holdup was, noting that GOP appropriators don’t object to the changes.

“Thad Cochran assured me that he was OK with what we were doing, so I don’t think it’s that,” Coburn said.

Earlier this spring, the task force presented McConnell with a set of modest reforms that appeared to have the support of much of the GOP Conference. McConnell, an appropriator, has been an enthusiastic earmarker.

McConnell entered into talks with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on drafting legislation and announced that he would hold a meeting with his Members the week before the July Fourth recess to begin the process of voluntarily implementing the changes. At the time, top GOP aides said McConnell hoped to use the pressure-free environment of this year — when earmarking opportunities are few because no appropriations bills are expected to be sent to President Bush — to begin the process of making the reforms.

But uneasiness in some quarters of the GOP Conference forced McConnell to cancel that meeting. In the runup to July Fourth, leadership aides said he would begin the process following the break.

But Lugar, Coburn and other Republicans said that since returning to work more than two weeks ago, there has been no word on when, or if, McConnell will resume work on earmarks.

Leadership aides said the lack of progress is not a symptom of a weakening of McConnell’s resolve to reform the process, chalking up the delay to his focus on gas prices and energy issues more broadly.

These aides predicted that if gas prices drop in the fall, McConnell could take up earmarks and the bigger issue of fiscal reform before lawmakers leave for the campaign trail in October.

But other Republicans were more skeptical, saying it appears McConnell might be content to let the issue drop. “It’s either dead or very sleepy,” one GOP aide said.

A second aide agreed, speculating that McConnell might have run into more resistance from the rank and file in June than he had anticipated, and he is wary of starting a family feud during an election year.

“What’s the pressure on him to break into the energy debate and have a nasty interconference fight? There is none,” a second GOP aide said.