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January 12, 2007

Murray/Cantwell split on earmark reform

Posted by David Postman at 10:36 AM

The U.S. Senate fight over earmark reform has Washington's Democratic senators on opposing sides.

Sen. Maria Cantwell voted with a small bloc of Democrats and a large group of Republicans to keep alive a GOP-sponsored measure widely viewed as a crackdown on abuse of Congressional earmarks. (And a mirror of the House Democratic package approved last week.)

In the parliamentary moves that bollixed the Senate Thursday night, though, the state's senior senator, Patty Murray, voted with leadership to try to kill that version, instead backing one with a narrower definition of what an earmark is.

The vote was an early and high-profile stumble for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

After the move to kill the DeMint language failed, Democrats refused to allow the amendment to be approved by voice, a normal procedure, and an hour later Reid called the entire Senate to the floor to beseech them to reconsider. He did not set a time for a final vote.

Cantwell joined eight other Democrats to support a move by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina to have the Senate back the House approach. You can read the whole proposed rule and the sections on earmarks here.

Reid's proposal, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was backed by Murray and most Senate Democrats. You can read it here.

The Reid version has two major differences from the DeMint/House proposal. The Reid rule would cover only earmarks to a "non-federal entity." That would mean any money — and there is a lot of it — that lawmakers earmark for local projects but send through the Pentagon, Department of Transportation or the Army Corps of Engineers or any other federal agency would not be covered. It does go further in prohibiting earmarks for any projects they have a financial interest in.

But it also would only cover earmarks in the text of a bill, which would exclude the many earmarks added in House/Senate conference reports.

There appears to be wide agreement across ideological lines that the House version is a more substantive reform. From TPM Muckraker:

According to Craig Holman of Public Citizen, Reid's version, if it had been applied to earmarks as part of legislation passed last year, would have disclosed the sponsor of only approximately 500 earmarks. DeMint's amendment would have forced sponsors to be known of roughly 12,000.

And from AP:

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said that of some 12,852 earmarks found in bills last year, only 534 would be subject to Senate disclosure rules.

The fight in the Senate last night was over a move to table the DeMint measure. It produced an interesting roll call. The nine Democrats voting against their leadership were Cantwell, Barack Obama of Illinois, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Tom Harkin of Iowa, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jon Tester of Montana and Jim Webb of Virginia.

There are a few potential presidential candidates in that list as well as Tester and Webb, freshmen who ran on reform platforms.

Cantwell spokeswoman Katharine Lister said:

"Senator Cantwell believes that how our government operates should be open and clear to the public. Transparency in government can only add to the public's confidence that Congress is doing its job for them. If additional transparency also helps to make Congress more aware of its actions and accountability to the public — all the better."

There's little surprise in Murray's vote. She is a top member of Democratic leadership. She is the new chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee for transportation. When I talked to her last week in D.C. Murray made it clear she was not ready to crack down too hard on earmarks.

She said they had "gotten out of whack," but that "earmarks have a very important and specific function." Murray said it wouldn't be realistic to end the practice of members getting specific appropriations for hometown projects.

"What's the option? We could send the money to the Department of Transportation and then let the bureaucrats decide whose projects should be built. Or we can do what we were elected to do and fight for our constituents."

In a foreshadowing of the last night's Senate debate, Murray also said "earmarks are very hard to define."

I hear the debate may resume Tuesday.

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