Earmark Ban Shaping Up as "Litmus Test" for GOP Frosh

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The battle for the hearts and minds of more than 80 freshmen Republicans who will storm Capitol Hill next week is coming down to earmarks.

Three freshmen members of the House tell Power Play that the lobbying efforts on the question of an earmark ban have been intense.

"Lots of calls, lots of emails," wrote one in response to a query by Power Play. "It's intense."

The divide is over whether the House should impose a permanent ban on earmarks, to impose a moratorium on the practice for the two-year duration of the 112th Congress or to reform the way the process works.

The issue is particularly fraught for new House members because so many of them campaigned against incumbent Democrats as earmark hogs. But at the same time, earmarking is really just another word for appropriating, which is the primary constitutional responsibility of the House.

The earmarks that most of the incoming freshmen were talking about were the old-fashioned kind, added anonymously to spending bills by privileged members without ever coming to the floor for a vote.

The three newbies told Power Play that they have all heard from established members of the House GOP caucus that they should look beyond the semantics and focus on the process.

All three said there was merit in the argument that an earmark proposed in public and voted on by the full Congress is hardly corrupt.

"Nobody likes spending tax money, but our job is to spend it wisely and transparently," said a second incoming GOPer, who said he saw earmarks being set up as a "litmus test" that could divide the caucus even before Republicans were in charge.

But the three members are also hearing from Tea Party supporters in and out of Washington that they should demand a ban on principle.

"The argument against them is pretty simple," said another rising freshman. "It's all about ‘Just say no.'"

Thanks to Today's Power Play crew: Heidi Noonan, Varuna Bhatia, Whitney Ksiazek, Jason Donner and Paige Dukeman.

The Day in Quotes

"As we go forward, we welcome Republican ideas about job creation."

-- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a USA Today op-ed in support of her bid for House minority leader.

"It's like she's a secret agent for the Republican Party."

-- An unnamed moderate Democrat House member talking about Nancy Pelosi to Roll Call.

"Indonesia is a part of me."

-- President Obama in a speech at the University of Indonesia."This is not about playing the numbers game. This is about respecting and honoring the members of our caucus in such a way that they will be comfortable with the process. I don't see how you maintain a comfort level for all of our members by rolling out these names. I don't think it does the process any real good. I've never done it, I'm not going to do it."

-- Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) denouncing to The Hill the rollout of high-profile members in support of Rep. Steny Hoyer over Clyburn for the number two slot in the coming Democratic minority."I believe you have a unique opportunity to guide the conference to support legislation that reduces the size and scope of the federal government."

-- Letter from Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) supporting fellow Texan Rep. Jeb Hensarling for House Republican Conference chairman over Tea Party enthusiast Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN).

"Membership in the Congressional Black Caucus has never been restricted to Democrats."

-- CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) saying the all-Democrat group will allow two new black Republican members Allen West (R-FL) and Tim Scott (R-SC) to join.

"I'm not looking to leave the party, and that's why the party hasn't left me."

-- Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) to KFAB-AM regarding switching parties.

"We came in together, we should go out together. That's my theory."

-- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on "Nightline" talking about Defense Secretary Robert Gates leaving his job in the coming months.

"We have what we call the Old Folks Caucus. Since we're so much older than everybody else in the government right now."

-- Defense Secretary Robert Gates, 67, on "Nightline" discussing his friendship and alliance with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 63.

"Membership in the Congressional Black Caucus has never been restricted to Democrats."

-- CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) saying the group, which has never had a Republican member, will allow two new black Republican congressmen, Allen West (R-FL) and Tim Scott (R-SC), to join.

"I'm probably fourth"

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on "The View" discussing the GOP field for 2012."Taking advantage of others, or exploiting powerful positions to enrich ourselves or to feed our own appetites, is the opposite of real leadership."

-- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in his new book "Leadership and Crisis."

"We're going to open up the process, make it more transparent, make it more accountable, let the public in so that they can see us do our work because it is their business."

-- Rep. Greg Walden R-OR) head of the Republican House transition team on the decision to place cameras in the powerful House Rules Committee room for the first time.

"Why Not?"

-- Gov. Charlie Crist (I-FL) on pardoning Jim Morrison for indecent exposure and profanity during a 1969 Miami concert.

"A lot of people know a lot of people. But I have nothing to do with this."

-- Chicago Alderman Ed Burke when asked by the Chicago Tribune whether he was behind an effort to launch a mayoral run for Rahm Emanuel's tenant, Rob Halpin, whose refusal to move out of Emanuel's house has caused ballot eligibility headaches for the former White House chief of staff .

Obama's Day - Cash Crash

President Obama had to leave Indonesia early because a looming cloud of volcanic ash, but things look even sootier in Seoul, where he spends the next three days.

Obama is in Seoul for a G20 meeting on trade and arrives just as his fellow leaders are reaching a new state of agitation about the decision by the Federal Reserve to run off another $600 billion to soak up U.S. debt.

It makes Obama's primary goals in the trip -- to push China over currency manipulation and demand friendlier trade terms with other nations - much tougher. The intentional watering-down of U.S. currency makes for a weak argument on China's egregious currency gaming.

President Obama has to get out of Seoul without any decision or even consensus being made about a new global reserve currency. Countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China want to ditch the dollar in favor of new international notes for the purpose of cross-border trading. Even the relatively modest manipulation of the dollar by the Fed only strengthens their case.

And with gold prices sky high, the idea of a metal's backed international currency is looking better and better to those weary of the inflated dollar.

Vice President Biden today meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, likely as part of the run up to next month's strategic review of President Obama's Afghan surge.

Biden and Clinton were reportedly at odds of the decision to add more troops, and the president can ill-afford a rift between them when the decision is rendered on staying the course or following Obama's original June deadline.

Pelosi's Leadership Headaches

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to solve the dispute between Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) over the House minority whip position with the "everybody gets a trophy" approach. She says she wants both men to be in the leadership. But there can only be one second banana.

Now, the Congressional Black Caucus is getting fired up. They want Clyburn, one of their own, to get the spot. That means trouble for Pelosi, who will face more CBC scorn on Monday when ethics trials for Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA) get underway.

Meanwhile, some House Democrats are calling for leadership elections to be postponed until after the lame duck session that begins next week. This is a play for leverage - a sign that some lawmakers would like to make sure that things go the way they would like in the duck before doling out their support.

Pelosi has, though, found a home for her most loyal lieutenant, outgoing Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). Van Hollen had to step down from his campaign post following the Nov. 2 wipeout and the conjured position of "assistant to the speaker" Pelosi bestowed on him isn't available anymore.

Van Hollen looks to be in line to be the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, a hugely powerful perch. Current Budget Chairman John Spratt took a beating in the midterms, leaving Van Hollen the chance to get a top slot in Pelosi's court in exile by merely leapfrogging members, not taking on an entrenched figure.

Even so, the Budget slot is a hefty reward for someone who just oversaw 65 defeats.

While Pelosi is still likely to sweep in to her minority leader slot on the strength of the empowered liberal wing of her party, the leadership tango is proving a more difficult dance than she might have first imagined.

Contested Results Roundup

In Alaska, Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller trimmed his deficit to the pile of write-in votes to 11,557 as absentee ballots trickle in, down from more than 15,000 after Election Day.

Miller is also going to court to demand that write-in ballots for Sen. Lisa Murkowski must have the "write-in" oval circled and hr name spelled correctly. State elections officials have suggested they have broad discretion in deciding voter intent.

No one yet knows how many of the write-in ballots are for Murkowski and how many are for the more than 100 other certified write-in candidates.

In the House, with Republican gains standing at 61 seats, seven contests remain undecided as absentee votes trickle in. Of those seven, Republicans have the edge in five.