House GOP plans earmark reform in appeal to conservative base

Along with an emphasis on national security, House Republicans plan an appeal to the conservative base on the fiscal responsibility front in a legislative last stand before voters decide their fate in November.

The second week of September GOP leaders will unveil a resolution commemorating the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and that same week could also tackle earmark reform in another attempt to win back disgruntled conservatives upset with congressional Republicans for what they see as a failure to curb government spending.

The rules changes are not yet complete, but the House is expected to vote on a bill that would require individual members to attach their names to all earmarked projects in each of the appropriations, tax and authorizing bills. The initial changes, which were included in a broader lobbying reform package, applied solely to appropriations bills.

Completing earmark reform outside a broader overhaul of the rules governing lobbyists’ interactions with members and staff could sound the death knell for the latter package, which House Republicans vowed to pass earlier this year when the Jack Abramoff scandal was commanding headlines on a daily basis.

But since that time the Abramoff scandal has captured the media’s attention more sporadically as the lack of progress in the war in Iraq has taken center stage.

The GOP is in a desperate fight to maintain its control of the House this fall, and Republicans will try to frame the national security debate in their favor during a series of votes during this last month of the regular session.

Those efforts includes resistance to a Senate immigration reform bill that will likely prevent Congress from enacting any meaningful legislation this year to curb illegal immigration despite voter insistence that lawmakers address the issue.

With little chance of an immigration compromise, the prospects are dim that the House will pass any landmark legislation before the election. Instead, Republicans appear content to move smaller bills that they hope will give them an edge at the polls.

“I think we’ll have a meaningful September, but it’s got to be meaningful enough for us to keep our majority,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).

Democrats, meanwhile, will continue to blame Republicans in the White House and in Congress for failures in Iraq and for a wage gap that continues to pinch middle class households.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the other members of the Democratic leadership sent a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) late last wek asking him to consider legislation to address five major agenda items.

In the letter, the Democratic leaders asked Hastert to implement the 9/11 Commission’s remaining national security recommendations, raise the minimum wage, address the funding gap in the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, restore funding to federal student loan programs and rollback tax breaks to big oil companies.

On the heels of President Bush’s own push to defend failings in Iraq and tout Republican success on national security, House Democrats could also join their Senate colleagues in forcing a no-confidence vote on Defense Secretary Dennis Rumsfeld, perhaps during floor debate on the defense reauthorization bill. Staff discussed the issue last week but did not decide whether they would call for a vote in the House, one Democratic aide said last week.

“After a cost of more than $300 billion, 2,639 American lives and 19,323 wounded in Iraq, America doesn’t need another campaign speech from the president, we need a strategy for success,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement put out by his office last Thursday.

Meetings between members and staff will dominate the abbreviated first week back, Republican leadership aides said last week. Hastert is expected to name conferees to negotiate the defense reauthorization bill with the Senate, and the House should vote on a bill to ban the export of horses for slaughter in other countries.

On the appropriations calendar, Republican leaders in the House would like to move final versions of the defense, homeland security and military quality-of-life spending bills before they leave at the end of the month.

A spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee said Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) would also like to move the bill funding the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, but a leadership aide said that would be unlikely because a minimum wage increase remains attached to the bill passed out of committee.

While the odds of an immigration deal are unlikely, GOP lawmakers are expected to discuss the legislation throughout this month.

Hastert and Boehner are expected to meet with each of the chairmen whose committees held immigration field hearings over the summer to review their findings, Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said.

On Fox News Sunday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he will call Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), his counterpart in the lower chamber, this week to jumpstart negotiations.

Republicans are divided about whether the House needs to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill following the summer field hearings.

Some members believe the House should re-pass some form of the immigration bill it approved last year, which had strict penalties to curb illegal immigration, whether or not the Senate takes it up. Those members believe it would give GOP lawmakers in the House another opportunity to distance themselves from the Senate.

“The Senate is the biggest obstacle we’ve got to retaining our majority,” Kingston said. “House members need to distance themselves from the Senate.”

Even if Congress does not approve a sweeping bill, Kingston, who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said the spending panels in both chambers have already increased funding for border patrol.

Republicans will try to use debate on a bill creating new rules to regulate the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial domestic surveillance program to criticize Democrats for being irresolute on national security.

Specter worked with the White House to develop legislation regulating that program. The Specter bill would allow the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve all surveillance programs, require administration officials to brief all members of the House and Senate intelligence panels every six months on the status of the surveillance program and update foreign intelligence laws to apply to current technology.

Republican Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M.), who is in a tight reelection fight with her Democratic challenger, introduced legislation last month with Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Sensenbrenner to modernize surveillance laws for the intelligence community.

Debates on national security and the war in Iraq could backfire on congressional Republicans, but many GOP lawmakers would like to go on the offensive.

“Let’s have the fight because when we have the fight, the Democrats fall all over themselves,” said freshman Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).

In addition to the constant threat of terrorist attacks, high gas prices have stoked lingering economic insecurity this election season. House and Senate negotiators remain divided on the only legislation lingering in Congress to address those costs – House and Senate bills to open coastal waters for oil and gas drilling.

The Senate bill, which is far more restrictive, has an easier path to passage because it mirrors an executive order negotiated during the Clinton administration to open drilling sites in the Gulf Coast next year.

Many Republicans were relieved to survive August relatively unscathed this year following last year’s disastrous stretch that was dominated by negative news out of Iraq and culminated with the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

“August was a boon for House Republicans,” Bonjean said, citing a foiled terror plot in London, a widely panned federal court ruling to prohibit the NSA’s domestic surveillance program and Bush’s aggressive courtship of national media.

With expectations fading that Republicans will maintain control of the House in November, partisan tensions predictably will dominate debate on the floor.

“We’re under no illusions that the House floor in September is not going to be political theater,” one senior GOP leadership aide said last week. “We’re showing that the Democrats are weak on national security and want to spend your money.”