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Democratic Earmark Working Group May End Empty-Handed

Senate Democrats working on their own earmark reform proposal said Sunday that House and Senate Republicans may have already killed Congress’ ability to secure money for pet projects for at least the next two years.

Though a small group of Democrats has been meeting intermittently for weeks on how to make the earmark process more fair and transparent, members of the group admit they may not have anything to talk about in February, when they are scheduled to present a proposal at a retreat of the entire Democratic caucus.

“If the House isn’t going to do earmarks and the Republicans here aren’t going to do earmarks, it would literally mean that there are no earmarks,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said when asked about the Democratic group. “So there doesn’t have to be too much to do.”

The incoming House GOP majority has vowed to keep appropriations and tax bills free of earmarks, which are provisions that primarily benefit one entity, business or district and are requested by individual Members so as to get around bureaucratic rules that could delay or deny the funding.

Just last week, Senate Republicans thwarted Democrats’ push for an omnibus spending bill that included more than $8 billion in earmarks. The Senate GOP caucus voted in November to adopt a nonbinding moratorium on earmark requests, but some GOP appropriators were prepared to vote for the omnibus before fiscal conservatives began to get wind of the deal.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the omnibus for lack of votes and is negotiating with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on a continuing resolution to keep the government funded for at least an additional three months. But even that measure appeared to be held up Sunday evening over Democratic requests for special provisions that Republicans said constitute earmarks.

Next year, Senate Republicans will have five more votes with which to block earmarks, and they have promised to do so.

Still, three Senate Democratic appropriators — Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.) and Feinstein — have been working with Democratic earmark opponents Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Mark Udall (Colo.) on a proposal to change the process by which earmarks are allocated, while preserving the right to earmark.

McCaskill agreed with Feinstein that there might not be much to say come February, but she said that outcome would be a good one from her perspective.

“I don’t know how this is all going to turn out. They’re asking me what things about the earmarking process that I think are most flawed, and I’ve talked about how arbitrary it is and how unfair it is in terms of how they’re distributed,” she said. “But ultimately no matter what the committee presents, I will be in favor of an outright ban on all of them.”

Despite Feinstein’s downbeat assessment of their efforts, she said she would prefer to at least retain the right to earmark funds for “public jurisdictions,” as long as the local governments are in agreement on the “vital necessity” of the project.

“Because you can have a president that … didn’t win in the state, doesn’t care about a state, puts the money where he wants, and you have no way of countering that,” Feinstein said.

Mikulski said the internal debate over earmarks was unavoidably delayed by the lame-duck session and the leadership’s decision to cancel a planned retreat after the election.

Still, she seemed optimistic about the group coming up with something workable.

“We’re a work in progress,” Mikulski said late last week. “I’m working with some of my colleagues on further earmark reform.”

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