Friday, January 12, 2007

Senate Democrats backed off promises to reform pork spending yesterday, using procedural tactics similar to ones they attacked Republicans for employing in past Congresses.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, stalled a vote on a Republican amendment that would require full disclosure of the spending provisions, also known as earmarks. The maneuver — which continued through last night and into today — gives Mr. Reid time to turn Democrats against the measure, which is similar to the ethics rules adopted with much fanfare last week by the new Democrat-led House.

Immediately before Mr. Reid stopped the amendment to the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007, the Senate expressed its support for it, rejecting a bid to kill it on a 51-46 vote. The measure would require that members of Congress disclose all earmarks they request.

“Democratic leaders are stalling in an attempt to strong-arm more Democrats into voting to table the amendment,” said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “This is not a promising beginning to the new Congress when the first effort to improve accountability and transparency is being shot down by the Democratic leadership.”

In addition to stopping the provision, Mr. Reid also criticized the first accomplishments by the new Democrat-led House.

“This is exactly like the House provision,” he said on the Senate floor. “That’s one of the problems I have. I frankly don’t think that they spent the time on this that we have.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, through a spokesman, defended the House earmarks rule as part of the “most sweeping” ethics reforms in congressional history.

“From our perspective, that’s what we felt we needed,” spokesman Drew Hammill said. “The Senate and the House are different bodies. They can’t operate the same way. The Senate is always going to move slower.”

The delaying tactic, which caused a brief uproar on the Senate floor, was reminiscent of House Republicans in the 2003 vote on the new Medicare prescription drug benefit extending the time for voting to allow leaders to persuade members to change their votes — a maneuver roundly criticized by Democrats at the time.

“I’d hoped the Senate would be different,” Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, told the chamber. “We’re doing exactly the same thing.”

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said yesterday’s drawn-out vote bore “absolutely no comparison to the strong-arm tactics” of former House Speaker Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, in 2003.

Republicans said the episode smacked of hypocrisy by Democrats, who campaigned heavily on ethics reform and what they characterized as the Republicans’ heavy-handed control of Congress.

“Senator Reid’s actions today embodied the attitude voters rejected in November,” said John Hart, spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and a fierce opponent of pork. “While his behavior may pass muster with the parliamentarian, it won’t with taxpayers in Peoria.”

The amendment by Mr. DeMint adopted the House’s wider definition of “earmarks,” to include Army Corps of Engineers water projects, Pentagon weapon systems, and items from other federal entities. Mr. Reid wants only to require disclosure of earmarks for nonfederal entities such as city parks, state universities and private contractors.

Mr. DeMint criticized the unamended ethics bill for revealing a mere 5 percent of earmarks lawmakers bury in complex legislation.

“If we take this bill as it is now,” he said, “the public is going to know from Day One that this idea of being open and transparent is just a scam.”

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