House conservatives prepare attack on earmarks

House GOP conservatives led by Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona are preparing to target dozens of earmarks in the first fiscal 2007 appropriations bills reaching the floor this week, a Flake spokesman said Tuesday.

Appropriations season in the House begins Wednesday with the $18.4 billion Agriculture appropriations bill that also funds the Food and Drug Administration and related agencies, followed Thursday by the $25.9 billion Interior-Environmental Protection Agency spending bill.

Flake's spokesman declined to provide details so as not to alert earmark sponsors of his floor strategy. But he said Flake has prepared roughly a dozen amendments each to the Agriculture and Interior spending bills that would block the agencies from spending money on particular projects.

Preliminary lists of earmarks conservatives might target include $668,570 for diet nutrition and obesity research in New Orleans, and $1.5 million for an entrance to the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., both in the Agriculture bill. Interior-EPA earmarks that could face Flake's scalpel include $300,000 for ivory-billed woodpecker research and $200 million for clean water infrastructure projects the White House did not request.

Despite a push for more disclosure required by the recently passed House lobbying bill, there is no listing of earmark sponsors in the committee reports accompanying the bills. Asked why the Appropriations Committee was not providing the list, as the lobbying bill would require, Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, offered only a "no comment" Tuesday.

Boehner said Congress is awaiting a conference agreement before acting, and conferees have not yet been named on the lobbying bill.

Flake and his allies would be unable to cut actual spending in the bill, meaning the agencies would still get the money and be able to spend it in ways they see fit rather than as earmarked by Congress. But if examples of earmarks being circulated are any guide to conservatives' floor strategy, they are not stopping at lawmakers' pet projects.

Conservatives also are looking at earmarks requested as part of the Bush administration's fiscal 2007 budget request, including $20 million for restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem at Washington's Olympic National Park, and $2.96 million to replace the cave lighting system at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. Flake's spokesman said his boss judges each earmark on its merits, regardless of whether they originated from Congress or the administration.

The Appropriations Committee has been quick to point out that total earmarks are down in the first few fiscal 2007 appropriations bills compared with last year's bills. For example, the fiscal 2007 Agriculture bill would spend $336 million less for earmarks than the fiscal 2006 bill, a 52 percent drop.

The Interior-EPA bill is $89 million lighter in earmarks than the fiscal 2006 version, a panel spokesman said, for a 32 percent reduction. The panel also has eliminated nine projects in the first two bills, including some White House priorities such as $8.4 million to lay plans for a "classical Chinese garden" at the National Arboretum.

The project is a gift from the Chinese government, which plans to contribute more than $50 million toward its construction. The Agriculture Department testified March 30 that "once completed, the garden will be the finest example of a classical Chinese garden outside of China" that eventually will be used "to develop new and improved ornamental and floral plants in the U.S."

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