GOPers want McCain’s help on earmarks

Three House GOP appropriators are not waiting until November to try to influence Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Budowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? MORE’s pledge to eliminate earmarks as president.

Reps. Jack Kingston (Ga.), Frank WolfFrank Rudolph WolfAfrica's gathering storm DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling Vulnerable Republican keeps focus as Democrats highlight Trump MORE (Va.) and Zach Wamp (Tenn.) have called on McCain to embrace their bill creating a bipartisan, bicameral committee on earmarks. The committee would work to define exactly what constitutes an earmark and develop some middle ground they believe Congress and the next president could support.

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“We are encouraged by your efforts to cut congressional pork and eliminate wasteful earmarks,” the three wrote in a letter sent to the Arizona Republican senator on Friday. “This practice has gotten out of hand by both parties.”

McCain has made the reform of earmarks a pillar of his campaign, and has promised to veto earmark-laden bills and make their authors infamous. But how McCain defines the term earmark and just how he would reform the entrenched process remains unclear.

The bill offered by the three GOP lawmakers could fill in these details.

It would create a committee that would hold at least five public hearings, where all sides in the earmark debate would be aired. It would define whether the term “earmark” should apply to specific requests for projects in authorization bills such as the massive highway measure, which is passed every six years and is laden with member-driven projects such as the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”

Kingston, Wolf and Wamp also want to debate whether specific provisions in tax and tariff bills should be considered earmarks, as well as whether so-called “administration earmarks” included in the executive branch’s annual budget should be covered by the definition.

McCain hasn’t indicated whether he would agree to eliminate administration earmarks as well as congressional earmarks. Some appropriators have vowed to target them if the next president tries to diminish Congress’s earmarking power.

The GOP trio introduced the bill last year with the support of 160 members including Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE (R-Ohio), but it couldn’t get any traction in the Democratic-controlled House.

The $700 billion rescue package for the financial sector Congress will consider this week makes it more important than ever to find ways to cut government spending, the three GOP appropriators acknowledge. As a result, any pork-barrel spending, real or perceived, will be an easy target for the chopping block.

At the same time, the country’s economic instability creates even more pressure to keep the government running, meaning earmarks attached to appropriations vehicles could be on a glide path to completion.

Congress will not complete work on this year’s spending bills, meaning whoever is elected president probably will be forced to address a massive omnibus appropriations bill chock full of money for members’ pet projects. The president could veto that package, but would face the political fallout of shutting down the government or funding it at last year’s levels for an indefinite period.

The original GOP resolution called for a complete moratorium on earmarks until the committee completed its work and offered recommendations, but Kingston conceded that step is unlikely if an omnibus spending bill is to be tackled early next year.

He predicts that McCain would veto the omnibus over earmarks and that Congress would override his veto. After that initial confrontation, he believes the two branches would be forced to forge a compromise to eliminate some of the more egregious earmarks while keeping others.

{mospagebreak}“What McCain is doing is very positive to try to stop the deficit spending,” he said. “Earmarks right now are very controversial and that’s one place we could start. We could start by cutting earmarks. If we have an omnibus early next year, we could say ‘Let’s compromise for this year but let’s work to get a permanent resolution of the earmark question.’ ”

Other, more ardent earmark foes believe McCain would rather shut down the government than back down on the hallmark of his “original maverick” campaign theme.

“I can’t speak for the campaign, but I think McCain is 100 percent serious when he said he would relish a fight with Congress over earmarks,” said Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ariz.).

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McCain’s campaign did not respond to questions about how he plans to respond to next year’s omnibus appropriations bill. A spokesman for the Obama campaign referred the question to his Senate office, which did not respond before press time.

Unlike most of his Senate colleagues, last year Obama along with McCain supported a bill that would have imposed a one-year moratorium on earmarks. Obama, who requested nearly $860 million in earmarks during his time in the Senate, has been less clear than McCain about the type of earmark reform he would champion once in the White House.

Other appropriators said the Constitution protects Congress’s power of the purse and predicted a colossal clash with appropriators for any new president who tries to change the earmarking process.

“This is a fundamental congressional prerogative,” said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), a longtime member of the House appropriations panel who is retiring at the end of this year.

One K Street lobbyist from a firm known for its earmark business suggested that some of the more flagrant earmarks, such as the $1 million requested for a museum commemorating Woodstock, could be eliminated. But earmarks for projects at universities and military installments could be preserved by placing the requests in authorization bills, the lobbyist said.

The regular committee vetting process would then provide more transparency to the projects and eliminate the practice of “air-dropping” items into appropriations bills during the final stage of the legislative process, a step used to avoid scrutiny.

Several Democratic appropriators rejected such a move or any attempt to reduce the legislative branch’s power to earmark.

“That would bog down the whole authorization process,” remarked Rep. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Star-studded cast to perform play based on Mueller report DC theatre to host 11-hour reading of the Mueller report MORE (D-Va.).

Even though he supports Obama, Moran worried that the freshman senator would be even more apt to eliminate earmarks than McCain because Obama is only in his first term and hasn’t had time to learn about the important role earmarks play in leveling the playing field for poorer districts.

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on financial services, said without earmarks his cash-strapped district, which includes the Bronx, would not be given adequate consideration for federal spending projects.