WASHINGTON – Whatever happened to the Republican Party's war on pork?
It never was the full-fledged assault envisioned by conservatives, but the GOP's battle against parochial home-state projects sought by members of Congress has faded into oblivion.
Just months ago, most Republicans in the House swore off pork barrel projects — at least until new reforms could be put in place. The moratorium on such "earmarks" was to be a key plank in the House GOP's fall platform, issues Republican candidates will emphasize in their campaigns.
Since then, it's been supplanted by high gasoline prices and the weak economy as dominant campaign issues.
But there's another factor, too. The appetite for home state earmarks among Republicans — including some party leaders — is almost as great as ever, despite warnings from some conservatives that GOP lawmakers' refusal to give up their earmarks is costing support among core constituencies.
For example, Roy Blunt, the Missouri lawmaker who's the No. 2 Republican in the House, last February was touting the GOP's "desire for change (on earmarks) and our commitment to get it done."
Last month, Blunt claimed credit for a host of projects, including $500,000 for an energy efficient roof on a local courthouse and a $1 million renewable energy research grant for a community college, saying the "funding will send your tax dollars back to be used in your neighborhood — where it belongs."
All told, Blunt obtained about $10 million for his southwest Missouri district from the handful of bills revealed by the Appropriations panel, which doles out the largess. More are certainly on the way once bills funding the Pentagon and its many contractors, transportation projects and economic development grants are approved.
Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who led a charge on earmarks early this year, barely raises the topic now. He's not one to criticize Republicans who grab pork.
"Not every earmark is bad, but my goodness, they ought to pass the straight face test," Boehner said.
The issue had such traction earlier this year that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was entertaining the idea of a temporary moratorium on pet projects and grants. Strong resistance from rank-and-file Democrats dissuaded her. Democrats then blocked a plan by House Republicans to impose a temporary ban on earmarks until new bipartisan reforms could be proposed.
The Senate in March voted overwhelmingly, 71-29, to reject a one-year ban on earmarks, even though all three major presidential candidates then supported the idea.
Democrats point to reforms put in place last year, including greater transparency requirements that include publicly disclosing the specific names of the entities that would get earmarked grants and projects. They also reduced earmarks by more than 40 percent from levels in the 2006 budget bills passed by Republicans.
This year, Democrats say they will freeze earmarks at current levels, a vow that seems to be borne out in data accumulated by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group. It's still early, however.
Many of the bills — including the annual defense spending measure that is usually rich with special projects not sought by the White House or the Pentagon — have yet to be approved by the pork-dispensing appropriations committees.
An already slow appropriations season — Democrats don't want election-year battles with President Bush over the government's budget — has ground to a halt over a bitter dispute surrounding a GOP effort to use the annual spending bills to lift a moratorium on offshore oil exploration in the Outer Continental Shelf.
As a result, just one bill, funding veterans programs and military construction projects, has passed the House. A move to strip out lawmaker projects not requested by the administration bombed on a 350-63 vote.
Party conservatives had tried to convince Republicans to unilaterally give up their pork to draw a contrast with earmark-hungry Democrats. But an informal tally found Republicans against the idea by a significant margin and it was dropped.
Still, 41 House members, including four Democrats, have sworn off earmarks this year. Ironically, that leaves more pork for GOP lawmakers who are still taking it.
Former Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who heads the Club for Growth, a group that backs economic conservatives in GOP primaries, says Republican voters are responding favorably to anti-earmark candidates, who won recent House primaries in Pennsylvania and California.
Toomey's group is running ads against endangered Alaska GOP Rep. Don Young, a 36-year House veteran and sponsor of the infamous "bridge to nowhere" who may not survive his state's primary election on Tuesday.
But he acknowledges that GOP leaders have mostly dropped the subject.
"Even though it would be very beneficial politically, it's hard when a very substantial portion of the conference isn't on board," Toomey said. "Then of course came skyrocketing gas prices and the opportunity to draw a real contrast on drilling."