McCain, others say time is right for new earmark rules

Lobbying scandals said to provide political window for crackdown on spending for legislators' pet projects.

Senate proponents of a crackdown on spending for member projects said today the Jack Abramoff affair and other lobbying scandals provide the political window through which to move earmark reform as a critical piece of lobbying overhaul.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., appeared at a news conference with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and others to unveil a bill that would modify Senate rules to allow senators to lodge a 60-vote point of order against unauthorized earmarks in appropriations bills.

"There are times when we have a political opportunity to do things," Ensign said. "Right now there is an opportunity to do things because of the scandals that are going on now." Ensign said reducing earmarks would lessen the pressure senators feel to vote for spending bills they might otherwise oppose, recounting some senators telling him, "I can't vote against the bill. I've got several projects in the bill."

The earmark bill has 10 cosponsors, including Democratic Sens. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Evan Bayh of Indiana.

McCain, who has introduced a broader lobby reform bill, said earmark restrictions would not undermine efforts to enact broader lobby reforms, "because the Abramoff thing is a long way from over."

The proposal would make it possible to challenge unauthorized earmarks -- as well as authorization language -- that is added to appropriations bills and conference reports. However, the proposed point of order would only affect appropriations bills, and not authorization bills, even though McCain said tax-writers and other authorizing committees have their own earmark practices.

"I think that's something that needs to be looked at, but we also have to do what is doable," McCain said.

The McCain proposal differs from one offered by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would allow a 60-vote point of order against any provision in an appropriations or authorization conference report that was not already in the House- or Senate-passed bill.

Earmark reformers are likely to face significant opposition from many Senate and House members, who rely on earmarks to direct federal funding to their home states and districts.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the GOP majority faces a potential backlash from voters over how Congress spends money, predicting Republicans would lose elections over spending. "We will reform the way we do business or we will lose," he said.

In the House Thursday, Democratic leaders sent a letter to Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, asking him to bring the Democrats' Honest Leadership and Open Government Act up for immediate consideration on the House floor, as well as a reform resolution on House procedures introduced by Democratic Reps. David Obey of Wisconsin, David Price of North Carolina, and Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

"Enactment of these reform measures would be a significant step toward lifting the serious ethical cloud left hanging over the House by your predecessor," they wrote, in reference to former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Republicans were in Cambridge, Md., Thursday at their annual retreat.

"It's an obvious cheap shot timed to change the subject from the fact that House Republicans are gathering together to discuss an agenda the country cares about. The Democrats simply wouldn't understand that," said a spokesman for Boehner.

Susan Davis contributed to this report.