By Alexander Bolton - 04/13/10 10:00 AM EDT
In a growing Republican split over spending, Democrats see a rare opportunity to drive an election-year wedge between the party establishment and its conservative base.
It’s an unusual schism this year for the Republican Party, which nearly derailed one of President Barack Obama’s leading priorities by presenting a unified front against healthcare reform.
An upcoming military emergency spending bill and other appropriations legislation will again test GOP unity, and Democrats hope to exploit the emerging divisions.
“It will pit the Tea Party wing against the more establishment-type Republicans,” said a Democratic Party strategist. “This deepens those fissures. And the more those fissures are deepened, the more Republicans are divided going into Election Day.”
Some Republicans are demanding that lawmakers offset the $33 billion cost of emergency legislation needed to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But other GOP senators are leery of being drawn into a political fight over national security funding after withstanding a barrage of criticism for blocking an extension of unemployment benefits.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who is leading the effort to block extended unemployment insurance because its cost would add to the federal deficit, has pledged to oppose the military spending bill.
“I voted against it the last two times,” Coburn said on the Senate floor before the recess. “I will vote against it again, and I will try to make that a pay-for.”
But, so far, Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), ranking Republican on the Appropriations panel, has not demanded that Democrats find more than $30 billion in spending cuts or tax increases to neutralize the deficit impact.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said “it sounds like Republicans are divided” on spending issues and added that lawmakers such as Coburn have no right to deny colleagues an up-or-down vote on important issues such as unemployment benefits.
“This is an abuse of the filibuster at the expense of a lot of needy people,” Durbin said on a conference call with reporters on the unemployment package Coburn had blocked.
A GOP aide noted that Coburn said the military supplemental should be paid for but didn’t expressly threaten to block it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring that bill to the floor by Memorial Day, said a Democratic aide.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, predicted that many Republicans would support the military supplemental, even if it adds to the debt.
“I do not feel [it] will engender any objection by the Republican side,” Reed said.
A GOP aide pointed to a speech Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) gave on the Senate floor Monday, exhorting Democrats to focus on the fiscal threat posed by soaring budget deficits.
“Democrats can no longer hide behind the argument of good intentions when the results threaten our very stability as a nation,” he said. “We must get a handle on the deficit and the debt. This is the issue that will focus our attention in the weeks and months ahead.”
Hari Sevugan, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, warned Republicans not to play politics with U.S. troops in combat zones.
“On this issue of providing for our troops in the field, I would hope Republicans would put politics aside for the first time in the last 14 months, but given their record to date, we’re not hopeful,” Sevugan said.
“Providing for our troops is clearly outside the realm of politics,” he added.
Democrats believe the question of earmarks has created another split within the Republican caucus that can be used to divide GOP leadership from the conservative base.
Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Coburn have led a crusade to place a moratorium on earmarks but have run into opposition from leaders of their own conference.
On the House side, Republican leader John Boehner (Ohio) has imposed a yearlong moratorium on earmark requests from his conference.
The pressure from Republicans spurred House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) to prohibit any earmarks that would direct government funding to private companies.
A similar effort to freeze earmarks has faltered in the Senate. Republicans held a meeting on the topic before the Easter recess but failed to reach agreement.
Senate Republican leaders and incumbents facing reelection have requested millions in earmarks, including ones for companies in their state.
Democrats note that McConnell listed nearly $570 million worth of earmark requests on his website.
McConnell’s requests include funding for private companies in his state, such as $12 million for Raytheon Missile Systems in Louisville and $5 million for Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense, a company working on special armor for lightweight military vehicles.
A GOP aide said McConnell has been consistent in his support for various projects in his home state.
Democrats charge Republicans with hypocrisy for decrying “pork-barrel” spending on the Senate floor and requesting federal funds for projects back home.
“Coming from a party that has time after time voted against the best interests of the American people, only to then try to take credit for it, it is not surprising that Republicans are talking out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to funding projects in their states,” said Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Reid.
Deirdre Murphy, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also fired a volley at Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) for “hypocritically request[ing] millions of dollars in pork spending while delivering empty rhetoric on restricting spending.”
Burr, who is facing a tough reelection, requested $320 million worth of earmarks.
His requests include $8.7 million to Defense Technologies Inc. for an intelligence-gathering system and $6.5 million to Hexatech Inc. for next-generation wireless and optical communications systems to equip the military.
Burr’s campaign said the senator only requested money for existing or authorized projects.
“As a senator committed to cutting wasteful government spending, Sen. Burr has taken a stand against spending … in not requesting new earmarks.
Under this policy, his requests are for projects that are authorized under current law, requested in the president’s budget or apply to an existing project that needs to be completed,” said Burr campaign spokeswoman Samantha Smith.