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Earmark Fight Poses Problem for Harry Reid, Dean Heller

With an increasingly gloves-off, partisan mentality permeating the Senate, an amendment targeting a 2005 earmark for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could pose political problems for Democrats and for Reid’s home-state colleague, GOP Sen. Dean Heller.

Sen. Mike Johanns has been pushing for a vote on his proposal to strip out language in the Senate’s two-year surface transportation bill that the Nebraska Republican argues is an earmark for Reid. The Nevada-specific provision would allow that state’s Department of Transportation to use $45 million from a 2005 high-speed rail earmark for other transportation initiatives, likely to help fund a road to McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

Johanns contends that the provision violates an agreement in the Senate to forgo earmarks for the current Congress and further erodes the trust of the American people in their government.

While the amendment might appear to be a no-brainer for Republicans who have made the elimination of earmarks a signature issue over the past few years, the possibility of a vote poses political problems for Reid and especially for Heller, who is seeking his first full term after being appointed last year to fill the seat of former Sen. John Ensign (R). Heller has been largely silent on the issue, despite coverage of the amendment by Nevada media outlets.

In a brief interview Monday, Heller said his initial reaction is that it is not an earmark, but he wants to reserve judgment until he reads the language of the proposal. “It’s not for a specific purpose, and it’s not new money,” Heller said. “I want to see it.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to take a public position on the issue. His support or opposition could prove crucial to whether Johanns gets a vote.

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders are working to create a list of amendments to the $109 billion reauthorization bill that would get votes, and they have not yet decided whether Johanns’ proposal will be on the final list, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. Debate on the bill could slip into next week.

While Reid and certain other institution-minded Senators, including some Republicans, are unabashed supporters of lawmakers’ right to direct spending back to their states, it doesn’t behoove Democrats to have yet another earmarks-related vote, as the issue has become unpopular and a symbol of government waste.

A vote in favor of the Reid language could open up Democrats, who are battling to keep their majority in the Senate, to criticism that they are unwilling to make the tough choices needed to help bring down the deficit.

The Senate last voted on the issue earlier this month when it considered an amendment from Sens. Pat Toomey
(R-Pa.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to make the current two-year earmark moratorium permanent. The two are pushing for another vote as an amendment to the surface transportation bill on the floor.

Their first vote failed, 40-59. Heller voted for the ban but could find himself in a difficult spot if there is a vote on the Reid provision.

If he votes in favor of the Reid provision, he runs the risk of drawing the ire of conservatives, who see the earmark issue as a test of lawmakers’ fiscal conservative bona fides.

If he votes against the provision, he would be voting against 1,500 needed jobs in the state, Democrats contend, a move that could hurt his bid to win election in November. He is running against Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) to fill Ensign’s seat.

A senior GOP aide said that if the Johanns amendment does get a vote, Heller needs to make the case that this is a Reid issue. But the aide conceded that it would put him in a no-win situation.

Democratic and Republican aides acknowledged that, if there is a vote, both sides could claim some semblance of victory.

Republicans said that if Reid blocks a vote on the amendment, it would look as if the Democratic leader is trying to keep this from being debated on the Senate floor and cravenly protecting his members from taking tough votes. If Reid does allow a vote, then the issue would get a lot more attention and would once again put Democrats on the record on the issue.

Democratic aides believe that a vote would put more of a dent in Heller’s re-election campaign than it would hurt Democrats, given that they have already voted on the issue recently.

Reid argues that the provision is not an earmark because the money was already appropriated for the Nevada Department of Transportation seven years ago. The language is needed because the rail project is no longer expected to use magnetic levitation technology.

“There is no new spending in this provision, which provides Nevada with additional flexibility and supports more than 1,500 jobs in a state that has the highest unemployment rate in the country,” Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said.

But Johanns and others disagree. “Everybody has promised there are no earmarks in this bill,” Johanns said last week when he unveiled his amendment. “I have found one, and it needs to go away.”

McCaskill’s office told Roll Call that she supports the Johanns amendment.

Erich Zimmermann, a senior policy analyst with government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, also believes the provision is an earmark and highlights the flawed earmarking process.

“If you win an earmark and the project doesn’t happen, then maybe it wasn’t as important as you thought it was and doesn’t warrant special treatment later on to send it to your state anyway,” Zimmermann said.

Zimmermann also said that if the language remains in the bill, it will likely be an issue in conference with the Republican-led House, where the GOP has sworn off all earmarks. The Senate ban only appears to cover earmarks in appropriations bills, Zimmermann noted.

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