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Lots of Sizzle, Little Steak

Senate Democrats try to undercut a Republican attempt at pork reform.

12:00 AM, Apr 30, 2007 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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SENATOR JIM DEMINT has led a crusade against pork barrel spending during his tenure in office, successfully blocking the omnibus spending bill last winter, pushing for various lobbying reforms, and even chastising his fellow Republicans for some of their earmark indulgences. Most recently, he tried, for a second time, to enact immediate rules changes in the Senate that would require increased disclosure of earmarks. But Democrats attempted to steal his thunder almost two weeks ago with a "reform" of their own.

Democrats have been fighting DeMint's efforts from the very beginning. When the Senate was debating lobbying reform legislation back in January, DeMint proposed an amendment that called for increased transparency, since the original language of the bill only required about 2 percent of earmarks to be disclosed. DeMint's amendment required all earmarks in committee-passed bills to be clearly identified with the name of the senator requesting the earmark, the recipient of the earmark, the purpose, and a certification indicating no financial interests on the part of the senator or his or her spouse.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wanted to table DeMint's amendment, but the Senate voted against this motion 46 to 51. The amendment then passed by a vote of 98-0. The overall bill the amendment was included in (S.1) passed the Senate by a vote of 96-2 on January 18. But the House has not introduced a version of the legislation yet, and according to one Democratic staffer, John Conyers, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, probably won't have a bill out of committee and on the floor until sometime in May.

This isn't to say that House Democrats haven't made good on their initial proposals to curb corruption in Washington. The House altered its own rules with respect to earmarks a few days before DeMint proposed his original amendment and DeMint even referred to his legislation as the "DeMint-Pelosi" amendment. But this is a different matter entirely from the House passing some version of S.1.

DeMint had originally decided to push for the amendment instead of calling for a Senate rules change because it was his understanding that the House would be debating S.1 soon after its passage in the Senate. But with the Iraq war debate taking up much of the spring, the House put S.1 on the backburner. On March 29, DeMint tried to get unanimous consent on a resolution for a Senate rules change with the same language as the amendment. Democrats cried foul and blocked his request for unanimous consent (even though it had passed 98-0 as an amendment), claiming it was because he didn't give them advance notice.

Undeterred, DeMint tried again, this time writing to the Senate leadership on April 12 and making them aware of his intentions to seek unanimous consent on April 17. Senators Tom Coburn, Saxby Chambliss, Mike Enzi, and John Cornyn also signed the letter. DeMint addressed the floor of the Senate on the 12th, but Sen. Dick Durbin refused to allow unanimous consent and the resolution was shot down once again. But not before Sen. Byrd stole the show with his announcement that his committee would follow the spirit of DeMint's resolution. (Byrd was one of the 46 that voted to table DeMint's amendment in January.)

Byrd, along with appropriations committee ranking Republican Thad Cochran, sent out a memo adopting DeMint's language in appropriations committee guidelines. The catch, however, is that there is no legislative authority to hold the committee to its word. In essence, it is a voluntary regulation that legislators can't actually be punished for violating.