With big spending bill's demise, is 'earmark' new dirty word on Hill?
Deficit hawks and watchdog groups see Thursday's demise of an omnibus spending bill in the Senate as a turning point. A critical mass of lawmakers, they say, are committed to an earmark ban.
There was no last hurrah for earmarks – known to supporters as “congressionally mandated spending,” and to critics as "pork-barrel" spending – as Senate majority leader Harry Reid on Thursday backed off plans to ram an earmark-laden spending bill through the Senate, before a House ban on earmarks takes effect in the new Congress.Skip to next paragraph
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Earmarks accounted for about $8.6 billion of the proposed $1.1 trillion omnibus for fiscal year 2011, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group. Senate Democrats had hoped to pass the omnibus bill before funding for government runs out at midnight Saturday. Since the new fiscal year began on Oct. 1, Congress has funded government with a series of continuing resolutions.
But a GOP firestorm over government spending derailed that prospect. In addition, watchdog groups listed lawmakers who had earmarks worth millions in the proposed omnibus bill, including Republicans who had committed to a ban on earmarks in the next Congress.
RELATED: The top 10 senators seeking earmarks
Earlier this week, Senator Reid appeared to have the 60 votes he needed to avoid a Republican filibuster on the omnibus – counting Democrats and most of the GOP senators who serve on the powerful Appropriations Committee. But this week, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky rallied the GOP caucus to oppose the bill. He is proposing a clean, continuing resolution at 2010 spending levels until Feb. 18, which would keep government offices open through then.
“By approving this bill, we would have helped cement for another year massive increases in spending and helped pave the way for a health-care bill most Americans are asking us to repeal,” Senator McConnell said in a floor speech on Friday. "The voters don’t want us to wait to cut spending and debt and fight the health-care bill next October. They want us to do these things immediately.”
In addition, conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, a favorite of tea party activists, threatened to force the Senate into a line-by-line a reading of the 1,924-page bill that would have pushed a vote on the measure past Saturday’s midnight deadline, shutting down the government, unless Congress changed course.
In the end, Reid ran short of votes – and ran out of time. Had GOP obstruction continued, he would have had no chance of getting to other priorities, such as repeal of the Clinton-era prohibition against gay troops serving openly in the military or the DREAM Act to open a path to citizenship for college students or military servicemen and women who came to the US illegally as children.
But before backing down, Reid defended earmarks and delivered a blistering attack on the "hypocrites" who had requested member projects, even as they threatened to vote against bills that included them.
“Everyone should understand this earmark issue is simply ... a way for the executive branch of government to steal power we've been granted in our Constitution. We have a constitutional duty to do congressionally directed spending,” he said in an afternoon briefing with reporters on Thursday. “I am convinced that I do not want to give up more power to the White House, whether it's George Bush or Barack Obama. And I'm going to fight as hard as I can against President Obama on these earmarks, and my Republican colleagues who hate to vote for them but love to get them.”