Passage of earmark ban in doubt

Senate proponents of a three-year moratorium on earmarks say they will not have enough votes to implement the reform measure when lawmakers consider the issue next week.
“We got a long road here,” said a Senate GOP aide who supports the measure. “We are 70 yards from the goal line, but I think momentum is on our side.”

Whatever the outcome, proponents argue it will be an important test vote to put lawmakers on the record regarding the issue and could set up a victory in the 112th Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set a high bar by negotiating an agreement with Senate Republican leaders that requires 67 votes for the earmark moratorium to win adoption. Republican leaders agreed to the high threshold, seeing it as the only way to get a vote on the proposal.
A senior Senate GOP aide said Democrats facing reelection in 2012 would face attacks if they voted against the moratorium.
“Any one of their members who is up in 2012 and doesn’t support this is going to have a lot of explaining to do," said the aide in reference to Democrats.
Only a few Democrats have committed to supporting the ban proposed by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Oka.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), which will be voted on as an amendment to the food-safety bill.
Senate aides whipping the amendment say McCaskill and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) are the only Democrats who have committed to back the measure. They also said retiring Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who both voted in 2008 for an earmark moratorium, are likely supporters.
Another possibility is Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, who voted two years ago for an amendment that would have established an earmark moratorium for fiscal year 2009.
The Senate Republican Conference decided last week to adopt a two-year ban on earmarks. But the proposal does not have any effect on Democrats and there is not a clear enforcement mechanism besides peer pressure.
The Coburn-McCaskill amendment would establish a 60-vote threshold for any bill or conference report that includes an earmark, limited tax benefit or limited tariff benefit.
Spending earmarks have attracted a lot of public attention but they account for a relatively small portion of budget compared to tax earmarks.
Lawmakers directed $15.9 billion in spending earmarks to their home states in 2010, but the co-chairmen of President Obama’s fiscal commission estimate there are $1.1 trillion worth of annual earmarks in tax legislation.

Senate proponents of the earmark moratorium are focusing on Democrats from conservative-leaning or centrist states who could face tough elections in 2012, such as Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.). A spokesman for Tester did not respond to a request for comment about where the senator stands on the ban.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who is up for reelection next cycle, has said he is willing to consider an earmark freeze to evaluate the process for funding local projects.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who was sworn into the upper chamber last week, said he hasn’t made up his mind on how to vote.

"I haven’t come to a final position on it, but in the campaign, what I said was that as long as other states’ members are fighting for and getting money for infrastructure needs, then I will support a transparent, fair, congressionally-directed earmark process,” Coons said in an interview.

“I do think Congress needs to have a hand in directing the federal budget, and eliminating earmarks would play no significant role in reducing the deficit,” he said. “It’s a widely held misunderstanding. It wouldn't save any money."
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who took the oath of office last week to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D), one of the most prolific earmarkers in history, has offered only qualified support for earmarks.
“As a Democrat, I have always believed in transparency. I am not a big earmark person,” he told The Charleston Gazette. “We’ve got to get our financial house in order. You can’t continue this reckless spending.”
Manchin says earmarks should be restricted to funding transportation and infrastructure projects, including projects to build information technology networks.
Earmark proponents expect to lose a handful of Republicans on the vote, such as Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee.
GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who won a tough reelection to her Alaska seat as a write-in candidate without national party support, has said she will oppose an earmark ban.

Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) opposed the ban when Republicans debated it last week.
—J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this report.