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Incumbents playing wait and see on budget additions

Many vulnerable House Republicans are adopting "get tough on earmarks" stands.

Earmarking federal funds for local projects has long been an incumbent protection tactic. But following the lead of House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders, a number of vulnerable House Republicans are getting religion and adopting "get tough on earmarks" stands. On Friday, Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., fresh off a losing bid to serve on the Appropriations Committee, said he would not request any projects this year. Reichert beat Democrat Darcy Burner 51-49 percent in 2006 and faces a rematch this year.

"I want to be clear: I am in favor of member projects, and I believe in the right of the Congress to dictate where federal dollars go. But the path we are headed down in Washington is not a good one," Reichert said in a videotaped statement. Last month, Burner, a former Microsoft executive, pledged that if elected she would post on her Web site all appropriations, targeted tax benefits or other earmarks she requests. In a statement, she said the move was prompted by the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" and the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

"Unfortunately, our current representative in Congress seems eager to engage in the worst sort of pork barrel politics, putting special interests -- and his own political fortunes -- ahead of those of the American taxpayer," Burner said.

Reichert is no slouch when it comes to earmarks, ranking 73rd in fiscal 2008 in the latest congressional power rankings from Congress.org. But he went one step further than Burner in announcing he would forgo projects altogether this year. A Burner spokesman said it was hypocritical of Reichert to first seek a seat on Appropriations and then swear off earmarks; he also noted that despite Reichert's earmarking prowess, he was still ranked 401st overall out of 435 House members in the recent power rankings. A Reichert spokeswoman said his new stance on earmarks has not dented his approval ratings and local feedback has been positive.

Another closely watched race is that of Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., who faces a tough challenge from Betsy Markey, a former aide for Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. In 2006, Musgrave narrowly defeated Democrat Angie Paccione, 46-43 percent.

At a news conference with anti-earmark crusaders like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., last week, she declared that taxpayers have become "absolutely repulsed" by earmarks. Like Reichert, Musgrave also just unsuccessfully ran for a seat on Appropriations. Also like Reichert, she has in the past been unabashed about her support for local projects in her district, citing a series of research projects at Colorado State University, such as a study of the impact of ultraviolet rays on crops, in a Feb. 19 release.

Musgrave announced a moratorium on earmarks in October, however; she explained that she had already requested the projects early in the fiscal 2008 process, and it was too late to revoke them. Earmarks for worthy projects like an abused women's shelter should not be confused with "Bridges to Nowhere," Musgrave said, but nonetheless the process needs to be re-evaluated as a result of bad actors.

Colorado State political science professor John Straayer said many candidates face a balancing act between the negative attention surrounding earmarks on the one hand and legitimate local needs on the other.

"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," he said.