By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
The congressional spending season began with a blowup over earmarks in the House yesterday, as the first bill to reach a vote prompted a White House veto threat and scores of amendments from Republicans furious with Democrats' handling of pet-project spending in the measures.
Debate on the $36 billion homeland security bill, which would fund the Federal Emergency Management Agency, border security and counterterrorism measures, bogged down last night as Republicans pushed scores of amendments aimed at banning the use of counterterrorism money for designer handbags, puppet shows and other programs included in the legislation. Democrats, intent on passing 11 of the 12 appropriations measures before the July 4 recess, responded by vowing to stay through the weekend if needed to break the deadlock.
As members of both parties railed on the floor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to ratchet down the tensions.
"Why don't we just leave this room today forgetting the word 'earmark'?" suggested Pelosi. "This is a way for . . . members to come together, sometimes in a bipartisan way, to have the Congress of the United States determine some of what is in the appropriations bills instead of just leaving it up to the White House."
Bipartisanship was in short supply yesterday. In speech after speech, Republicans attacked a plan by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) to keep hundreds of earmark requests out of the bills until later in the process. Though Obey estimates that such spending accounts for less than 2 percent of the bills' combined tab of $955 billion, he said he has been snowed under by more than 30,000 lawmaker "boodle" requests. To give himself and committee staff members more time to screen them, he plans to drop the earmarks into the bills when they move to the House-Senate conference committees before the August break, giving members and the public a month to review and question them. Any changes could be made when the House bills are reconciled with Senate versions, he said.
Republicans and some open-government advocates say such a process would deny lawmakers the right to vote on the often-controversial earmarks and would keep them secret for too long.
Under Obey's system, "we will never have a vote on any earmark, and that is simply wrong," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). He said he has tried to strip earmarks from bills 39 times in the past and "failed all 39 times," because lawmakers tend to protect each others' requests.
"The Democrats came to power promising greater openness and transparency. Withholding earmarks while hundreds of billions of dollars in spending bills are debated makes a mockery of that process," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Obey, he said, "shouldn't force half-baked appropriations bills on the House floor just to make an arbitrary timeline."
Obey blames the need for the move on Republicans, who he said saddled the Democratic-controlled Congress with unresolved spending issues from last year, and with the Iraq war spending bill, which passed last month after a protracted fight. "We spent the last five months cleaning up your spilled milk," he said on the floor yesterday.
"It is not that we didn't want [to include] them. It's that our staff did not have the capacity to screen all of them before we brought the bills out," Obey said. "We had to spend the first month dealing with last year's Republican budgets. We had to do two years of work in one."
If Republicans continue to block votes, the combative Obey threatened to cut all earmarks from the bills, denying lawmakers of both parties a coveted opportunity to cement their popularity at home.
"If you know Mr. Obey, it's an option," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said.
Democrats are betting that the opposition's delaying tactics will wear thin. "Holding up an important homeland security bill in hopes of making a political point . . . is more likely to make the country angry at them, not us," a leadership aide said.
But Democrats must also contend with a White House spoiling for a fight on the spending bills. Bush has promised to veto any bills that exceed his spending request, setting up a potential veto on virtually every one: All told, the dozen spending bills would add $23 billion, or about 2.5 percent, to the president's $932 billion budget request. The homeland security bill debated yesterday exceeds Bush's request by 6 percent, increasing the number of border guards and boosting grants for first-responder training and equipment.
Yesterday, the White House budget office issued a veto threat against the homeland security bill. It took issue with what it called "an irresponsible and excessive level of spending," including the increase in program grants and a provision doubling the amount of air cargo subject to physical inspection.
Office of Management and Budget spokesman Sean Kevelighan said it is premature to be talking about vetoes over earmarks alone, though he said the White House is looking at them closely. "We have to watch closely on the earmarks and to see what the eventual action is," he said. "It is very hard to tell, especially on the House side, what are the plans for earmarks."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.