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Obama and Coburn revive effort to stop no-bid FEMA contracts

Having scored a high-profile victory on their bill to set up an online federal spending database, the unlikely freshman duo of Sens. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP lawmaker: Dems not standing for Trump is 'un-American' Forget the Nunes memo — where's the transparency with Trump’s personal finances? Mark Levin: Clinton colluded with Russia, 'paid for a warrant' to surveil Carter Page MORE (D-Ill.) and Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnPaul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism Republicans in Congress shouldn't try to bring back earmarks Republicans should know reviving earmarks is a political nightmare MORE (R-Okla.) are hoping their fourth bid to crack down on no-bid contracting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will finally make it to the president’s desk.

The Senate has passed four versions this year of Obama and Coburn’s language requiring FEMA to accept competitive bids for hurricane reconstruction contracts valued above $500,000, but both chambers have yet to give their plan the force of law. As conferees near agreement on the defense authorization bill amid election-year pressures to appear tough on wasteful spending, the freshmen are pushing for their block on no-bids to emerge in the conference report.

“Everything we have seen about the Katrina rebuilding effort shows this is something that should have been initiated right away,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said. “The closer you get to the election, the more members of Congress will want to demonstrate to the public that they are fiscally responsible.”

Few senators have as much political capital on fiscal responsibility as Coburn, who riled some of his more seasoned colleagues by attempting to force votes on individual earmarks in the spring emergency supplemental. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an Obama and Coburn amendment enforcing competitive bidding at FEMA that passed the Senate unanimously was later left off of the conference report on that emergency supplemental.

But the landscape has shifted in recent weeks since Obama and Coburn’s plan for an Internet listing of federal grants and contracts sparked an avalanche of blogger publicity and won public support from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The House was poised to approve the Senate version of that bill yesterday, giving the senators new political capital at a crucial moment.

“Call it ‘Groundhog Day’ legislating if you want, but it’s something that is very important to both of them,” Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said, riffing on the popular film about living through the same day repeatedly. “If it’s not [included in the conference report], we will be frustrated and we will offer it again.”

Obama and Coburn wrote to FEMA director David Paulison last month after viewing reports that the four main no-bid contracts awarded for emergency housing of residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina had bloated from $400 million to $3.4 billion. Paulison had echoed the senators’ qualms about no-bid abuse during private meetings in December and May, but the four contracts — given to Bechtel Corp., Fluor, the Shaw Group and CH2M Hill — were not reopened for bidding despite the agency’s initial promises to that effect.

“While FEMA cannot comment on pending legislation, FEMA director Paulison has reiterated in public and in front of the Senate Homeland Committee that he is ‘no fan of no-bid contracts,’” FEMA national spokesman Aaron Walker said. “We would welcome any dialogue to increase the competitive nature of our contracting and procurement policies.”

More momentum for Obama and Coburn’s amendment could come from a report on Katrina no-bid contracts released by a team of House Democrats a to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the disaster last month. That investigation, led by Government Reform Committee ranking Democrat Henry Waxman (Calif.), found that 70 percent of FEMA’s Katrina contracts affected by the Obama-Coburn amendment were awarded with incompletely open competition.

The four businesses receiving the largest Katrina no-bids recently won new contracts for Katrina housing that were competitively bid, and the FEMA amendment was not discussed publicly following the most recent defense authorization conference meeting. But Obama and Coburn, who are also continuing to push their proposal for a chief financial officer to monitor spending on the Gulf Coast, plan to keep leveraging their lack of seniority for more public attention on their cause.

“Sometimes freshmen can be more in touch with what people are thinking,” Hart said. “There is plenty of evidence that the longer people are in Washington, the less responsive they become.”