WASHINGTON – The top Democratic vote counter in the Senate suggested Tuesday that a measure to put a 100 percent moratorium on earmarks for a year is expected to fail when it comes up for a vote on Thursday.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an appropriations subcommittee chairmen, called the current budget process chock full of earmarks, or home state projects, even describing President Bush's delineated spending priorities as part of the earmark process.
"I have an appropriation bill sent to me by this administration that's already loaded with earmarks before I touch it," Durbin, D-Ill., said.
"These are the president's earmarks; decisions made by people working in the Executive Branch of government, on how we should spend federal funds. I respect it and will take a close look at their recommendations. But quite honestly, when it comes to projects around my state and the rest of the nation, I don't think it's unreasonable for Congress to have some input in that discussion," he said.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is lead sponsor of the legislation for a one-year moratorium on earmarks, along with Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
DeMint and McCain have both requested zero dollars in earmarks for the next fiscal year and were joined by a bipartisan group of senators, including Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Axing earmarks sounded so good to some that both Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama signed on to DeMint's bill. This caused a bit of a shock wave to ripple through the ranks of their Democratic colleagues. Numerous Democrats leaving their regularly-scheduled Tuesday party lunch told FOX News the moratorium was a hot topic.
"There were various speeches. I think most members won't be supporting this thing," said one Democratic senator leaving the meeting, noting that the leadership was adamantly against it.
"I hope that senators of good will on both sides of the aisle will step forward and say, 'We have an obligation to our clients — to our constituents,'" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pleaded to his colleagues.
Eliminating 100 percent of earmarks sounds good, but members know they must answer to their constituents, and that often means bringing home the bacon in the form of earmarks.
Some lawmakers point to rural areas which get federal monies solely from earmarks. Reid said his state's tiny town of Wells, Nev., population 1,346, according to the 2000 census, was recently rocked by a 6.45 magnitude earthquake
"It shook things real hard and bad. ... The damage was about a million dollars. Under the rules that we have — FEMA has — unless there's $2.5 million of damage, they just walk away from it. Well, I think there is a perfect place to go for a congressionally directed spending, to help the little town of Wells re-establish their business community."
According to a recent report by the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, Congress "inserted 12,881 earmarks worth $18.3 billion into (the fiscal year 2008) spending bills, $14.8 billion of which were disclosed by lawmakers. This represents a 23 percent cut in total earmarks from the high water mark of 2005, but a smaller cut than the 50 percent reduction House leadership initially set as its goal."
Topping out the list of Senate earmarkers is Appropriations Committee ranking Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Cochran got more than $837 million worth of spending projects. Next in line is Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. She took home far less — about $470 million. Landrieu is facing a stiff re-election battle this year.
In fact, the top nine earmarkers all hold seats on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Interestingly, the senator who held the top spot for years, Sen Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the committee, slipped to seventh place in the current fiscal year.
According to the report, Clinton, who represents New York, came in 10th among those requesting earmarks — with more than $342 million in projects; Obama, from Illinois, requested nearly $99 million in fiscal year 2008.
Durbin, an Obama backer, on Tuesday issued a written statement that said, "Although I respect our presidential candidates and will certainly be supporting one of them wholeheartedly come November, I disagree with them on the issue of earmarks."
Meanwhile, across the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2008 and the target of intense Democratic attacks, was clearly wrestling with a decision on how to vote.
"Frankly, I'm not certain what the outcome will be. And I haven't decided, personally, how I'm going to vote on that yet." said McConnell, R-Ky.