Democrats try to reshape security spending debate

Republicans want to discuss earmarks on the House floor before passing any spending bill.

House Democrats on Wednesday launched a counteroffensive to pass the annual spending bill for the Homeland Security Department, arguing that Republicans opposed to earmarks in the measure are unnecessarily delaying funding for critical programs and emergency responders.

Debate on the $36.3 billion bill for fiscal 2008 entered its second round. Republicans used a series of procedural moves Tuesday to stretch debate until about 2 a.m. Wednesday.

Republicans continued to hammer Democrats for their decision to withhold until late summer earmarks for pet projects in lawmakers' districts. Republicans want to debate earmarks on the House floor before passing any spending bill.

Republicans also argued that spending in the Homeland Security bill would be too high. But Republicans supported a series of amendments late Tuesday that would increase spending in the bill by about $60 million.

Trying to change the terms of the debate, Democrats on Wednesday used floor time to discuss what they consider more substantive provisions. Examples include the billions of dollars proposed for aviation security, port and border security, and grant programs for emergency responders and communications systems that can work across jurisdictions.

Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., called the debate over earmarks "an embarrassment and an affront," especially to New York City residents who experienced the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"I cannot understand how my friends on the other side can spend all these hours debating earmarks when we should be passing one of the most important bills in the House," she said. "Let's get on with the business of this bill. ... We have no higher priority than to take every action necessary for the security of this country."

Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said the dispute over earmarks is preventing lawmakers from discussing the current provisions of the legislation. Rogers previously said, however, that the Homeland Security spending bill would be free of earmarks.

The GOP does not appear ready to relent. Republicans said they still have about 100 amendments to debate. Republican leadership sources said that Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, had a conversation Tuesday night to end the GOP's floor tactics but were unable to reach an agreement.

A senior leadership aide said Hoyer made what was described as a "weak" offer. Hoyer's office did not deny that he approached Boehner about a deal. Hoyer also approached Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to try to find a solution to the impasse, an aide confirmed.

The entire GOP effort may prove fruitless if their aim of forcing Democrats to limit debate and hand the minority a rhetorical and procedural win does not lead to headlines about Democrats blocking Republican efforts at fiscal responsibility and ethics reform.

"We're going full-speed ahead as long as it takes," a senior Republican leadership aide said. "Their side is going to have to deal with this."

But other GOP leadership aides acknowledged that while the Republican rank-and-file remains steadfastly behind the effort, that could change should it fail to provide the desired political results quickly. Democratic leadership sources said they are counting on a backlash.

Christian Bourge contributed to the story.