Striking a balance on earmarks

Call it the Coburn clause.
Senate Republicans say they are trying to salvage a spending-reform provision empowering individual senators to strip new earmarks out of conference reports without handing the rank and file unlimited power to wage wars of attrition to defeat bills they do not like.

Call it the Coburn clause.

Senate Republicans say they are trying to salvage a spending-reform provision empowering individual senators to strip new earmarks out of conference reports without handing the rank and file unlimited power to wage wars of attrition to defeat bills they do not like.

“Writing the language in such a way that gets done what we want to accomplish has been very difficult,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), chairman of the Rules Committee, said yesterday. “You don’t want to make it possible for troublemakers to tie up conference reports at the end of a session indefinitely with points of order.”

Lott did not single out any such “troublemakers,” but Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) proved last month that he is willing to use all available weapons in a floor fight.

Coburn offered a rare “clay pigeon” amendment to the war supplemental, under which each of the 19 pieces was subject to a vote. Rank-and-file Republican spending hawks have been battling leadership-written bills on the floors of both chambers, and the conference-report provision would give them a brand-new tool with which to fight.

Aides to Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) spent an hour with the Senate parliamentarian earlier this week trying to hammer out language that would preserve the original intent but not lead to nightmarish legislative delays, Ensign said yesterday. But Ensign, who is considering attaching his version to another bill, said he has not yet discussed the matter with Lott. If not well-crafted, the new rule could let senators impede legislation, he said.

The backroom maneuvering on earmark rules comes as lawmakers in both chambers are also waging public battles over spending.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) angered many of his GOP colleagues yesterday by trying to strike their district-specific earmarks from a bill funding transportation and housing programs. Flake’s home-state Republican colleague, John McCain, introduced a Senate amendment to the defense authorization bill that is designed to prod the Bush administration into providing estimates of war-funding needs to Congress in its annual budgets.

And Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) unveiled an omnibus budget-process-overhaul measure yesterday that would establish enforcement mechanisms for caps on mandatory and discretionary spending, create a modified line-item veto and convert the federal government to biennial budgeting.

Flake lost roll calls on his amendments, McCain’s amendment is unenforceable and even Republicans predicted that Gregg’s budget-process omnibus has little chance of passage. But the effect of the Senate-specific earmark language could be far-reaching if it is included in a conference report on lobbying reform.

Conservatives hailed the original Senate language as a powerful tool they could use to limit “immaculate” earmarks — those that appear for the first time in conference reports. One Republican aide called the provision “the holy grail” of budget-process reforms.

Under that language, senators could raise points of order against conference provisions that did not appear in either the House or Senate version of a bill. If supporters of offending provision could not muster 60 votes to keep them in, they would be struck and the revised conference report would be sent back to the House.

That, however, raises the prospect of a single senator raising such a point of order, waiting for the House to act on the revised bill, raising a second point of order against a separate provision and repeating the process as a means of killing a bill.

“That’s why we’re trying to carefully craft the language,” Ensign said. “I think it may be used often early, then less often later.”

The basic concept has proponents on both sides of the partisan divide, but the devil remains in the details.

“I do like the idea,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), “but I also am wary of anything that would just be designed to rope-a-dope the process.”

The final language could include a limitation on the number of points of order available to senators, Lott said.

But while some lawmakers and aides hope to finish a lobbying bill before the July 4 recess, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) declined to set a deadline yesterday.

“I’m not talking about any timelines,” Hastert said.

However, in a joint statement last week, Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said they are aiming to pass a final bill by July 4.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans rolled out Gregg’s budget-process bill, dubbed the Stop Over-Spending — or SOS — Act of 2006.

“We must regain control of this runaway train before it is too late,” Gregg said.

Democrats seized on the offering as a “Save Our Seats” plan and predicted it would be a loser on the floor.

Conrad pointed to the GOP’s inability to pass a budget this year and mounting debt as evidence of Republicans’ fiscal irresponsibility.

“They’re cursing the darkness. Whose darkness is it?” Conrad said. “Why didn’t they light a candle?”