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Republicans in retreat

| Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Nearly the entire federal government would be funded by an omnibus appropriations bill unveiled Monday after covert negotiations. In parliamentary maneuvering likely to extend all through this week, Democrats will pare the spending level to the maximum demanded by President George W. Bush in order to avoid a veto. Republicans will declare victory. In fact, they are in retreat.

As the minority party in Congress, the GOP will have had less than 24 hours to read the massive bill before it comes up for a House vote today. While coming close to the Bush limit, the bill will be passed over Republican opposition because it contains no Iraq war funding. It then will go the Senate on Wednesday, where Republicans will use their filibuster threat to insert money for Iraq. Overall spending will be reduced to the Bush standard in the Senate by means of an across-the-board cut. The bill then will be passed into law by the House.

This solution is designed to win bipartisan support because it will contain earmarks for pork barrel spending back home dearly desired on both sides of the aisle. It became clear a week ago that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was in negotiation with Majority Leader Harry Reid for a bill to finance multiple new earmarks by means of across-the-board reduction in government programs. What's more, a little rules chicanery will hide an estimated 12,000 new earmarks, including pork that previously had not been passed by any chamber and is "airdropped" into the bill. The wily legislators have found a way to get around new ethics rules that require disclosure of all such spending.

Nobody can predict exactly the outcome of this intricate legislative process. It is not totally out of the question that an omnibus money bill still will fail and that Bush will achieve his real desire.

On Friday, the president advocated a continuing resolution (CR), keeping spending at last year's level without new earmarks. That is also the goal of the GOP's House leadership. But because that is a very unlikely outcome, Republican reformers believe they have a lost a golden opportunity to regain their old "brand" of fiscal responsibility by fighting to the end in the budget battle.

As early as Tuesday last week, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel observed what McConnell was up to and issued a statement accusing him of trading established domestic spending programs for individual earmarks: "(H)e's fighting for earmarks over funding for cancer cures, the veterans' health care crisis and 5,000 new American teachers." Those words chilled conservative Republican senators who were saying the same thing privately. They did not go public because rank-and-file members of Congress are not inclined to challenge their leaders in today's climate of partisan polarization.

Indeed, while anti-pork Republican Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint have fought earmarks valiantly for three years, they are reluctant to combat McConnell and thus play into Democrat hands. Remembering how Republicans suffered from the 1995 government shutdown, other GOP senators are chary about a CR repeating unpleasant history.

But the overriding reason for backing away from a showdown on government spending was the feeling in both parties that elected representatives cannot return home without booty, financed by the American taxpayers. However, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, not known previously as a foe of earmarks, has come to the conclusion that his colleagues vastly overrate the political necessity of pork.

Rep. Blunt and Sen. DeMint met privately Friday to probe ways of enacting a clean, pork-less bill. They have not given up, but the odds against them are heavy, as their colleagues yearn to return home for Christmas. Each is a Santa Claus distributing earmarks to special interests with no thought of reform.

Robert Novak is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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