Senate hold, GOP tension stall transparency measure

The mystery of proliferating holds on a Senate government-transparency bill continued to slow progress on a unanimous consent deal Wednesday, with watchdog groups urging renewed focus on the policy, not the personalities.

Bloggers on both sides of Washington’s partisan chasm called for a halt to Senate blocks on the bill, which would set up a public database of all federal grants and contracts, including those resulting from earmarks. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and an unnamed Democrat were said to have active holds as of midday, but congressional sources said Stevens removed his late yesterday.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of fingers pointed, but … if the bill becomes law we’re happy,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the bill’s chief sponsor, along with fellow freshman Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Their measure landed on the Senate calendar just before the August recess after its voice-vote approval in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Yet passage by unanimous consent proved elusive thanks to an unknown number of holds on the bill, triggering a spirited Internet campaign to publicize the objectors.

“From our perspective, it’s a very non-controversial bill, so it’s unfortunate that the shenanigans are tripping up something that is actually good for the country,” said Adam Hughes, federal fiscal policy director at OMB Watch.

An all-star lineup of fiscal watchdogs and budget hawks — OMB Watch, the National Taxpayers Union, the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, the Sunlight Foundation and the Project on Government Oversight — took to the Capitol on Wednesday to promote the bill, which appeared to be cleared for approval on Tuesday.

Online sleuths, from right-leaning Porkbusters and GOP Progress to left-leaning TPM Muckraker and Wonkette, contacted every Senate office during the recess and eventually discovered two holders: Stevens and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).

But Byrd lifted the hold as he acknowledged it. “The bill should be debated and opened to amendment, and not pushed through without discussion,” the former chief appropriator told bloggers through his spokesman.

The bloggers won a powerful endorsement from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who used his Volunteer PAC (VOLPAC) website to ask senators from both parties to cooperate with grassroots inquiries. Frist echoed the watchdogs and Web activists, calling it “deeply ironic” that a plan to remove the cloak of anonymity from earmarks would be blocked by anonymous holds.

Stevens, however, disputes any characterization of his hold as anonymous and replaced his block on the bill late Tuesday, hours after lifting it lifting it for the first time.

“Chairman Stevens has never had a secret hold on this bill, but he told Sen. Coburn he will maintain his hold as long as Coburn maintains his hold on Commerce Committee legislation,” the Alaskan said through his spokesman. Coburn’s office had not been notified of Stevens’ decision to lift his hold by press time.

Though a third Democratic senator has also raised a new objection to the bill, Stevens’ reversal forced Frist to edit another entry quickly on his VOLPAC blog late Tuesday. Beneath a call for the Democrat to lift the hold or “pay the consequences of continued obstruction,” Frist vowed: “Let me be clear, hold or no hold, I will bring this legislation to the floor for a vote in September.”

Stevens originally objected to the cost of establishing a comprehensive OMB database, which the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates at $15 million over five years. OMB Watch, which soon will launch its own version of the federal-spending catalogue at a cost of $234,000 over three years, questioned the motives of the former Appropriations chairman and famously prolific spender.

“I think [Stevens] could [not] care less how much it costs,” Hughes said. “It’s about the Bridge to Nowhere … about teaching people how it’s done in the Senate.”

Coburn spokesman John Hart denied speculation that Stevens had lifted his hold briefly in exchange for Coburn’s agreement to relinquish his hold on a Commerce Committee bill dealing with estuary protection.

“The reason everyone in America accused Stevens of placing a secret hold is that Stevens refused to answer questions,” Hart said. “If you don’t answer questions from the public, the public gets angry.”

The political points to be scored off Senate gridlock of a good-government bill have attracted Democrats as well as Republicans to the fight. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean singled Stevens out in an email to party supporters last week.

“A Google-like web site to find out where your tax dollars go — seems like a no-brainer, right? Think again,” Dean wrote, linking to a petition asking Stevens to lift his hold. Dean charged the Senate’s most senior Republican with obscuring “the wasteful mess that he and his party have made of the federal budget.”

Yet the bill’s watchdog supporters point out that the database is unlikely to resemble Google’s format, instead likening it to a receipt for services the government purchases.

Hart said the DNC pitch illustrates the bill’s political value as the midterms approach: “It’s especially harmful to Republicans when you have Howard Dean out there sending fundraising letters on this issue.”

Both Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office and OMB, which officially supports the transparency bill, did not return a request for further comment.