Earmark reform deal in the House raises eyebrows in Senate

As the House approaches today’s still-uncertain vote on its leadership-backed lobbying overhaul bill, the earmark-reform deal struck late last week by appropriators, conservatives and leaders continues to face a questionable fate in conference.

One aide to a senior Senate appropriator said his boss would fight hard to preserve the upper chamber’s earmark-reform language, which calls for all appropriations, tax and authorization bills to contain “an explanation of the essential government purpose” of each earmark they contain — a requirement notably absent from the House version.

“I would think he’d be very strongly wedded to the Senate’s particular language because it was the product of a lot of negotiations on the Senate side — good-faith, bipartisan negotiations,” the aide said.

House appropriators are long-shot candidates for the lobbying-overhaul conference committee that will convene soon after the bill passes that chamber, likely today. House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), who drafted the bill after leading months of conference negotiations on lobbying and ethics issues, is an almost certain conferee, and four other chairmen whose committees claimed jurisdiction over the bill could push for conference appointments.

On the Senate side, however, Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) played a key role in crafting earmark-reform language that could satisfy appropriators, working with the bill’s floor manager, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Both senators are institutionally driven and could be loath to cede ground on congressional rules changes during conference on the lobbying bill.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has abandoned fellow Appropriations members on recent earmark-related floor votes, siding with fellow conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on efforts to strip projects from the emergency war supplemental. Brownback said he is in favor of whatever will break the logjam on earmark reform.

Still, he warned, “Sometimes these efforts to broaden it are really attempts to kill it.” Though it is early May, he said the Senate is already moving “on a molasses pace,” which could hurt the bill’s chances.

“I’m worried that we’re going to run out of time,” he said.

The House GOP leadership team is poised for a major victory on its lobbying and ethics package, which has taken a rocky path to the floor, as long as Appropriations Committee members make good on their vow to support the bill in exchange for an extension of its earmark-reform language during conference negotiations.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters yesterday that he expects the lobbying bill to pass tomorrow, despite near-unified Democratic opposition and complaints from GOP centrists that its enforcement does not go far enough. Boehner said he and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have long intended to broaden the bill’s earmark-reform provision before taking a conference report to the House floor.

“We have already begun the process of working with other committees in terms of how they do their work and how we can bring more transparency and accountability into those authorizing and tax committees,” Boehner said. Going through that process with appropriators, he added, took “eight or nine weeks.”

House appropriators protested a requirement that only their committee’s bills contain labeled lists of member earmarks and threatened to oppose the whole bill unless that provision is extended to tax and authorizing legislation.

Conferees on the lobbying bill will face a number of challenges in writing earmark-reform provisions that would change House and Senate rules. It is unclear whether the same language would be required to apply to both chambers or whether separate new points of order could be established in a conference report.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), an appropriator locked in a tough reelection race, said that he hasn’t given much thought to the question of earmark-reform breadth yet but that he favors disclosure.

“If I put an earmark in, I put a press release out,” he said, adding that lawmakers should “expose the fingerprints.”

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), another Appropriations Committee member with a record of securing of home-state dollars to tout in November, said across-the-board changes are “pretty hard to do.”

He said he would wait to see what comes back from a conference on lobbying reform, which could begin before the Memorial Day recess but is unlikely to finish before June. Vulnerable GOP incumbents, including Burns, could be forced to choose between accepting an unpalatable earmark-reform provision and giving Democratic opponents ammunition by voting against their party’s post-Abramoff ethics bill.

Senate appropriator Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) underscored the problem facing House leaders who now must craft earmark-reform language tailored to the Ways and Means, Transportation and other authorizing committees.

“It’s hard to define what pork spending is,” Allard said. He said that earmark reform ought to be applied across the board but that his vote on a conference report is not contingent upon that.

While the Democratic lobbying and ethics reform plan also included earmark-transparency language, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday that she would support banning earmarks outright.

“I’d just as soon eliminate them altogether,” Pelosi said, echoing past statements by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “Pelosi said the proliferation of earmarks results from misplaced budget priorities. It should be a values-based determination,” she said, not an equation that rewards those who have “the strongest advocate in Congress.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of six government-watchdog groups that have coordinated a push for the strongest possible lobbying and ethics bill held a press conference yesterday with Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), two of the House’s most active pro-reform advocates. Shays and Meehan have not abandoned hopes for a defeat of the leadership bill today.