Saturday, December 18, 2010

Congress: End of the line for $8 billion in earmarks

WASHINGTON - Republicans on Friday reveled in a dual victory over government spending that showed off the party's resolve in the upcoming fight over the federal purse.

By finding common ground and killing a $1.3 trillion spending bill, Republican lawmakers managed to kill a sheaf of earmarked expenditures and rope in straying GOP colleagues who inserted them - even those who helped write the bill.

And as a result of the win, they forced Democrats to agree to consider a slimmed-down, stopgap measure that would put most major spending decisions in the hands of the next Congress, when Republicans will control the House and see their numbers swell in the Senate.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a favorite of the pro-small-government "tea party" movement, gave rare kudos to his party.

"It's a good day to be a Republican," the South Carolina Republican said.

The defunct legislation would have funded the government for the next fiscal year and was laced with $8 billion in spending for lawmakers' earmarks - the pet projects that have become the symbol of government waste.

Without the votes to pass the Senate, Democratic lawmakers on Friday turned to a painful plan B - the measure that would fund the government at current levels just for the immediate future. Lawmakers Friday worked toward a vote on the bill. Government funding expires today.

Buoyed by the news about the spending bills, the Republican House leader and soon-to-be speaker, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, reiterated his priority of cutting federal spending back to 2008 levels.

"It's not enough to just hold the line on spending; we need to cut spending," he said.

The demise of the so-called omnibus spending bill was the first major legislative victory for the tea-party movement and conservative advocates who have promised to flex their muscle on budget issues.

Responding to alerts from Washington advocacy groups, such as FreedomWorks and Liberty Central, activists sent a torrent of e-mails and phone calls urging Republicans to oppose the bill. They billed it as a "liberal wish list" of goodies that Democrats were trying to sneak through before heading home for the holidays.

But it was not just Democrats seeking the earmarks. GOP senators requested hundreds of millions of dollars for home-state projects. They included even those members who swore off the practice just last month.

Red-faced, they argued they had sought the money before the self-imposed ban. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate GOP leader, requested $113 million in earmarks in the bill himself, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The earmarks in the omnibus measure amounted to less than 1 percent of the overall bill, which also included funding for the implementation of the new health-care and financial-regulatory laws and military spending.

Republican rejection of the bill perhaps was the clearest evidence yet that the call for belt-tightening by grass-roots conservatives may be changing, at least temporarily, the culture in Congress.

Exhibit A was the decision by Sen. Thad Cochran - a six-term senator who as ranking member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee is a proud defender of his ability to direct federal money home to Mississippi - to oppose the omnibus bill. Cochran secured more than $561 million in earmarks in the bill, according to estimates from the non-profit Taxpayers for Common Sense.

But on Thursday, he and all the other members of the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to vote against the bill.

by Kathleen Hennessey Tribune Washington Bureau Dec. 18, 2010 12:00 AM

Congress: End of the line for $8 billion in earmarks

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