House deal on earmarks lets appropriations work proceed

House leaders finally settled procedural differences Thursday, enabling work on fiscal 2008 appropriations bills to continue -- after an entire day was lost to behind-the-scenes maneuvering that left them at essentially the same place they were the night before.

Republicans pledged to cooperate on future spending bills in the interest of moving them in a timely fashion, while House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., will include earmarks up front for debate and votes on 10 of the 12 spending bills.

Republicans declared victory. "Democratic leaders finally surrendered to our demands because supporting secret earmarks in appropriations bills is indefensible and the American people won't stand for it," Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.

"Though this must be a sad day in the speaker's office, it's a great day for taxpayers," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the Republican Study Committee chairman who spent most of the previous two days on the floor offering amendments.

Democrats had a more restrained reaction. "We have an agreement between people who are trying to move America's business forward," said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. "This was a political process, not a substantive process."

The agreement paves the way for final passage this week of the $37.4 billion Homeland Security measure and a $109.2 billion Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill, which as drafted do not contain earmarks.

Other bills will proceed under unanimous consent agreements and with open rules, allowing members to challenge individual projects if they choose.

But the delay scotched hopes of passing 11 of 12 bills before the July Fourth recess, as Democrats originally intended. Obey must now take the remaining bills back to committee to include earmarks and disclose their sponsors before debate and votes on the floor.

Under the House leaders' agreement, any projects added in conference on any of the bills that were not in initial House or Senate versions would subject the entire conference report to a point of order, which if successful would send the measure back to conference to fix.

Leaders settled on a convoluted strategy for the $31.6 billion Energy and Water spending bill where the measure could be considered next week on the floor but without earmarks because of the amount of staff time it would take to include them.

That bill's complex array of earmarks would be considered as a separate "supplementary report." The projects will then be re-attached to the Energy and Water bill for transmittal to the Senate before the July Fourth recess, allowing "the projects to catch up to the bill," as Obey put it.

But the Interior-Environment measure -- like the Energy and Water bill initially planned for this week -- is now pushed back by a week while the Appropriations Committee files a supplementary report containing that bill's earmarks before it can go to the floor.

Obey said the Financial Services, State-Foreign Operations and Legislative Branch bills would have to "briefly" go back to committee to be voted on again.

That will delay floor consideration of those bills by "up to two weeks," he said, while the Commerce-Justice-Science measure would "hopefully" still be completed by the July Fourth recess.

But the Labor-Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development measures would be punted until July, joining the Defense bill -- which was always intended for that month and has been expected to contain earmarks up front.

Now that Republicans have successfully sped up the process of reviewing and including earmarks up front, Obey said they "take responsibility for any mistakes that occur in the process."

While House Republicans might have won the procedural skirmish, Democrats thus far have the edge in extracting additional spending above President Bush's requests.

After getting Bush to accept $17 billion more than he asked for in the Iraq supplemental, he has declined to veto the Military Construction-VA measure, which spends $4 billion more than he requested.

He has threatened to veto the Homeland Security bill, which is more than $2 billion above his request, but that will also be a heavy lift for him to sustain even though House GOP conservatives obtained enough signatures Thursday to do so.

"It's easy to talk tough when it's generalities, but a lot harder to follow through on specific bills," a top Democratic aide said.

A senior GOP source also indicated support for a veto on the Homeland bill could wane, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., noted Thursday that last year Bush signed into law an fiscal 2007 Homeland Security bill that was $2.7 billion more than he asked for.

President Bush invited House Republican appropriators to the White House Thursday for a pep talk at the behest of party leaders, sources said, sensing he will need their support to uphold vetoes of fiscal 2008 bills given the thin margin of error in the 147 signatures.

House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., helped to round up signatures but only 16 out of 29 GOP appropriators ended up signing -- including only five out of 12 subcommittee ranking members.

Christian Bourge contributed to this report.

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