AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Published Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 | 1:39 p.m.
Updated Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 | 1:40 p.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had a message for his antagonists today. To Republicans: stop being such hypocrites. To the White House: stay out of my Congress.
“I do not want to give up more power to the White House, whether it's George Bush or Barack Obama, and I'm going to fight as hard as I can against President Obama on these earmarks, and my Republican colleagues who hate to vote for them but love to get them,” Reid said.
The latest break down between Reid and Obama – and Republican party leaders, with whom the administration has taken to striking deals with lately — is cropping up over a dispute about funding the government.
Congress has to pass a federal budget by Saturday night at midnight or the government will go dark, just as it did in 1995, when a Newt Gingrich-led House reached an impasse with then-President Clinton.
This time, the fight is in the Senate, where Republicans are leading a charge against the bill because of “earmark” spending — funding for line items inserted into the federal budget at the behest of individual members of Congress.
Lawmakers have been railing against earmarks as a marker of congressional clout and largesse for as long as there have been appropriations bills, but the refrain has been a nationwide rallying cry for Republicans, and especially those of the Tea Party strain, since 2008, when then-presidential contender John McCain railed against earmarks as a way to rein in government spending.
While top party leaders and appropriators do get significant financial mileage out of earmarks for their home districts — Reid successfully requested about $250 million in the 2011 omnibus bill, and Appropriations Committee heads Daniel Inouye, Democrat from Hawaii, and Thad Cochran, Republican from Mississippi, ended up pulling about $420 million and $560 million respectively — earmarks are a drop in the budgetary bucket.
The $2.2 billion in earmarked items add up to about 0.2 percent of the total $1.1 trillion federal budget.
But White House sources have been telling reporters they wished the bill did not have “earmarks” in it, though they also say the alternative — funding a short-term continuing resolution at present budget levels — isn’t satisfactory either.
That had Reid seeing red Thursday.
“I can't accept the fact that people are saying 'why should we vote for this, it's got congressionally directed spending in it' — that's our job, that's what we're supposed to do,” he said.
Taking a maroon leather-bound copy of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution out of his pocket, he continued, calling out not just the president for trying to strong-arm lawmakers out of their congressional authority, but also those lawmakers who are trying to disown their pork, but eat it too.
“You can’t have it both ways. You can all look it up in the dictionary yourself, but I bet that if you went to ‘H’ in the dictionary and found ‘hypocrite’, under that would be people who ask for earmarks but vote against them,” Reid said.
He didn’t name him by name, but one Republican who would fall into that category is Reid’s co-senator from Nevada, Republican John Ensign.
Ensign has taken up the crusade of reducing spending in Washington spearheaded by ultra-conservative Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, even withholding a vote for the tax bill — despite the fact it had the tax cuts he’s been angling for for months — because nothing in the bill was offset by cuts elsewhere to the federal budget.
Ensign’s been saying he wants to bring the budget down to 2008 levels. But that conviction did not keep him from signing onto just shy of $85 million in earmark requests in the 2011 budget — which he now is indicating he plans to vote against.
“I’ve not yet heard any of these folks, once they get an earmark that they asked for but didn’t vote for, I’ve not heard any of them ask to rescind it,” Reid said.
Reid characterized such lawmakers as “mean-spirited.” When asked if calling Republicans hypocrites could be construed as equally mean-spirited, he shrugged, and with a half-grin, said: “could be.”
Reid also reiterated a threat made earlier this week to keep Congress in session past Christmas.
“I don’t know if I’ll bring it up before Christmas, but before this Congress ends, we’re going to ... determine a vote on the START treaty, the DREAM Act, 'Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,' 9/11, and hopefully we can reach an agreement on nominations,” he said. “We are in session, if necessary, up to January fifth.”
Since there’s been brandishing of Constitutions today, a note for the scholars and purists: it’s true, the Constitution — specifically, the 20th Amendment — does say that new Congresses have to start at noon on Jan. 3rd. But it also says that Congress can change that by law.
And that’s just what it did last month. Both houses of Congress passed Senate Joint Resolution 40, a Reid-sponsored measure that made the convening day for the 112th Congress Jan. 5th. Obama signed it into law on the last day of November.
So that means Reid could keep Congress in session until 11:59 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, on the fifth of January.