Despite Obama veto pledge, senior Senate Dems want narrow earmark ban

Despite Obama veto pledge, senior Senate Dems want narrow earmark ban

Senior Senate Democrats want to limit the scope of an earmark moratorium adopted reluctantly in the wake of President Obama’s pledge to veto bills containing earmarks.

Senior Democrats who chair authorizing committees argue that the earmark moratorium should not cover all “congressionally directed spending” under their jurisdiction.

But Republicans led by Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE (Ariz.) are pushing Democrats to apply the moratorium broadly.

“Would anyone want to ban Congress from authorizing or appropriating money for a disaster relief? I hope not. It’s going to take some thinking as to how you define earmark,” said Sen. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden pays tribute to late Sen. Levin: 'Embodied the best of who we are' Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm dead at 85 MORE (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services panel.

Levin and other senior Democrats argued behind the scenes that an earmark moratorium should not apply to a request to fund assistance in response to a natural disaster or a request to give the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq additional equipment.

“If a senator requests additional UAVs, and they’re only assembled in one state, is that an earmark?” Levin said in reference to unmanned aerial vehicles.

Levin argues that a senator should be able to request funding to improve the armor on military Humvees, even if the armor is assembled in his or her home state.

Rule 44 of the Senate requires the disclosure of such requests.

Proponents of a broad earmark ban argue that provisions defined by the Senate rules as “congressionally directed spending” count as earmarks and should be subject to Obama’s veto pledge.

But Levin disagrees. He says these requests should be disclosed but argues that senators should not be prohibited from setting spending priorities.

He points out that Rule 44 only requires disclosure, it does not ban directed spending — one of Congress’s most cherished powers.

“I hope we don’t want to stop Congress from authorizing funds for protecting our troops,” he said. “Disclosure is fine.

“Would we want to ban Congress from doing that?” he said. “We’re struggling with that.”

The last formal statement Senate Democrats made about earmarks came from Sen. Dan Inouye (Hawaii), chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Inouye said on Feb. 1 that earmarks should be kept out of the annual spending bills that fund the federal government.

Inouye grudgingly took the position after Obama pledged to veto legislation with earmarks during his State of the Union address.

Inouye said he continues “to support the constitutional right of members of Congress to direct investments to their states and districts.”

But he admitted the “handwriting is clearly on the wall” and given “the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests” after Obama made his pledge.

That concession does not appear to cover major authorization bills such as the defense authorization and the multi-year surface transportation authorization that Democrats hope to pass later this year.

A senior Senate Republican aide said he does not expect the authorizing committees to adopt Inouye’s decision to drop earmarks from legislation.

“It will cover his appropriations bills, it wouldn’t cover the authorization bills,” said the aide. “I would say there is an appropriations earmark ban.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidVoters need to feel the benefit, not just hear the message Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama Mellman: Are independents really so independent? MORE (D-Nev.) has consistently defended lawmakers’ power to direct spending to specific priorities.

Reid said last month that Obama should "back off" his pledge to veto bills with earmarks and let Congress decide where federal funding goes.

"He's got enough to do without messing in what we do," Reid told NBC News.

Proponents of a broad earmark ban say it should cover appropriations and tax bills.

Spokespersons for the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction of tax bills, and the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the transportation reauthorization, did not respond to requests for comment.

McCain, the senior Republican on the Armed Services panel, is pressing Levin hard to also adopt an earmark ban.

McCain wrote a letter to Levin in January calling for the panel to bar earmarks from authorization bills.

“I strongly recommend that we continue a policy of not having earmarks,” McCain wrote. “We are faced with unprecedented deficits and debt that demand we spend taxpayers’ dollars for only validated defense requirements.”

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, expects senators to attempt to circumvent an earmark moratorium.

“I’m confident there will be attempts to get around the ban in a variety of ways,” he said.

Ellis said authorization and tax bills should not have any special status to serve as vehicles for earmarks.

He argues that if Rule 44 requires disclosure of earmarks in authorization, tax and tariff bills, then Obama’s veto pledge should cover all of them.

Ellis noted that the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” a controversial project that sparked a backlash against earmarks, was inserted in the 2005 transportation authorization bill.

Vicki Needham contributed to this report