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Business as Usual GOP

An Inside Report by Robert D. Novak

Thursday, January 24, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When House Republicans convene behind closed doors today (Thursday) at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V., they have a chance to make two bold moves to restore their reputation for fiscal responsibility. First, they could declare a one-year moratorium on Republican congressional earmarks. Second, they could name anti-earmark reformer Rep. Jeff Flake to a vacancy on the House Appropriations Committee. In fact, almost surely they will do neither.

Instead, the retreat is likely to adopt some limitation on earmarks with no public impact and exerting no pressure on the earmark-happy Democratic majority. Consideration of Flake's candidacy for Appropriations was postponed until after this week's earmark debate at the Greenbrier. But content with a half-measure on earmarks, the House Republicans will not place insistent reformer Flake in the midst of the pork-dispensing appropriators.

Staring into a 2008 election abyss, Republicans lost credibility as upholders of lean government by sponsoring profligate pork barrel spending during 12 years in the congressional majority and have not reformed since the 2006 Democratic takeover. The message out of West Virginia this week predictably will be business as usual.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, the Appropriations Committee's ranking Republican, leads fellow appropriators against the moratorium. They are joined by the most seriously challenged Republican incumbents, who see political salvation in bringing home the bacon to their districts, and principles be damned.

If the moratorium were adopted, it would make sense to put Flake on the Appropriations Committee to harass its irascible, earmark-loving Democratic chairman, Rep. David Obey, without offending GOP appropriators. But if Republicans have not foresworn pork, Flake as an appropriator would be on a collision course with Lewis. Under federal investigation for earmarks, Lewis has lost his customary California cool on the floor when Flake has challenged his pork projects.

Flake, a four-term congressman from Arizona who ran the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix before his election, is usually a dependable party man and is personally well liked. But the Republican Party, preferring to operate as a secretive private corporation, deplores Flake for discussing the GOP affinity for pork in public instead of closed forums such as this week's session at the Greenbrier.

Flake's most prominent competitor for Appropriations is Rep. Tom Cole, a major political figure in Oklahoma who currently heads the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). A few sensitive Republicans worry about Cole solving the NRCC's fund-raising woes by dispensing earmarks. But opposition stems mostly from the belief that Cole's NRCC chairmanship is enough for one congressman.

The most likely winner of the Appropriations derby will be Rep. Dave Reichert, the former sheriff of King County, Wash. (Seattle) who has not distinguished himself during three years in Congress and gets only a 60 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. His sole qualification appears to be that he is the most endangered Republican House member in 2008 and needs to bring home the bacon.

As far as Republicans recovering their fiscal brand, the appropriators say earmarks are strictly Washington inside baseball with no public support. They should follow Sen. John McCain on the campaign trail, as he is cheered for promising to veto bills with earmarked pork.

McCain as the party's leader is one possible new development for the earmarkers to ponder. Then there are possible new indictments tied to earmarks. In addition to Lewis, Alaska's two longtime purveyors of pork -- Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young -- are under federal investigation. Though Flake likely will be kept off the Appropriations Committee, he will not go away and will be joined this year by additional Republicans proposing elimination of individual earmarks. Flake until now has not tried to kill more than a dozen earmarks on any appropriations bill. This year, he promises to introduce "many, many more" than a dozen amendments per bill.

Ironically, the Appropriations vacancy was created by the appointment of Rep. Roger Wicker of Mississippi to the Senate. The Washington Post last week reported that Wicker late last year as an appropriator inserted a $6 million earmark for a defense firm that contributed to his campaign and was lobbied by Wicker's former chief of staff. Roger Wicker is a poster child for an earmark moratorium.

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