The GOP's Budget Retreat

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, December 17, 2007

Nearly the entire federal government would be funded by an omnibus appropriations bill to be unveiled today after covert negotiations. In subsequent parliamentary maneuvering likely to extend through this week, Democrats will pare the spending level to the maximum demanded by President Bush in order to avoid a veto. Republicans will declare victory. In fact, they are in retreat.

As the minority party in Congress, the GOP will have less than 24 hours to read the massive bill before it comes up for a House vote tomorrow. While at least coming close to Bush's limit, the bill will be passed over Republican opposition because it contains no Iraq war funding. It then will go to the Senate on Wednesday, where Republicans will use a filibuster threat to insert money for Iraq. Overall spending will be reduced to the Bush standard in the Senate by means of an across-the-board cut. That version then will be passed by the House, though Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she personally will vote against this solution, which, in effect, finances the war at the expense of domestic programs.

This solution is designed to win bipartisan support because it will contain earmarks for pork-barrel spending dearly desired on both sides of the aisle. It became clear a week ago that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was in negotiations with Majority Leader Harry Reid on a bill to finance multiple new earmarks by means of an across-the-board reduction in government programs. What's more, a little rules chicanery will hide an estimated 12,000 new earmarks, including pork that previously had not been passed by any chamber and will be "airdropped" into the bill. The wily legislators have found a way around new ethics rules that require disclosure of all such spending.

Nobody can predict even at this late date the outcome of this intricate legislative process. It is not out of the question that an omnibus money bill still will fail and that Bush will achieve his real desire. On Friday, the president advocated a continuing resolution keeping spending at last year's level without new earmarks. That is also the goal of the House GOP leadership. But because that is a very unlikely outcome, Republican reformers believe that they have lost a golden opportunity to regain their old "brand" of fiscal responsibility by fighting to the end in the budget battle.

The astute House Democratic Caucus chairman, Rahm Emanuel, observed what McConnell was up to and issued a statement last Tuesday accusing him of trading valuable established domestic programs for earmarks:

"[H]e's fighting for earmarks over funding for cancer cures, the veterans' health care crisis, and 50,000 new American teachers." Those words chilled conservative Republican senators who were saying exactly the same thing privately. These senators did not go public because rank-and-file members of Congress are not inclined to challenge their leader in today's climate of partisan polarization.

Indeed, while anti-pork Republican Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint have fought earmarks valiantly for three years, they are reluctant to combat McConnell and thus play into Democratic hands. Remembering how Republicans suffered from the 1995 government shutdown, other GOP senators are chary about a continuing resolution repeating unpleasant history (though it is hard to see why the minority party and the president would be blamed this time, in contrast to what happened 12 years ago).

But the overriding reason for backing away from a showdown on government spending was the feeling in both parties that elected representatives cannot return home without booty, financed by the bank accounts of American taxpayers. However, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, not previously known as a foe of earmarks, has come to the conclusion that his colleagues vastly overrate the political necessity of pork.

Blunt and DeMint met privately Friday to probe ways of enacting a clean, pork-less bill. They have not given up, but the odds are heavily against them as their colleagues yearn to return home for Christmas. Each is a Santa Claus distributing earmarks to special interests, with no thought of reform.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company