GOP's Pork Option

"Given the lack of time available," Sen. Mitch McConnell said last week, "the best way to deal with the troop funding issue would be in the context of some kind of settlement on an overall omnibus appropriation bill." Instead of following the president’s hardline on spending, the Republican leader of the Senate was opting for a compromise bill that George W. Bush might be forced to sign because it contains money for Iraq.

House Republican Leader John Boehner sounds determined about sticking to President Bush’s budget and ending up with a continuing resolution (CR) keeping spending at present levels. McConnell plays his cards closer to his vest than Boehner but seems to favor cutting a deal with the Democrats for a compromise exceeding Bush’s limits. A CR would contain no new earmarks, while an omnibus bill would be festooned with earmarks for lavish pork-barrel spending back home — desired by McConnell among others.

This poses a fateful choice for a troubled Republican Party in danger of national decline. Rank-and-file House Republicans press Boehner to "regain our brand" as the party of fiscal responsibility. But the Senate GOP, led by McConnell, sees a different route to survival. They feel the need to bring home the bacon to constituents, and that means cutting a deal with Majority Leader Harry Reid for an earmark-heavy omnibus bill.

Mitch McConnell has proved an effective minority leader who has kept his 49 senators remarkably unified. What is often overlooked is that McConnell is the first Senate Republican leader in nearly half a century with a seat on the Appropriations Committee. Sen. Lamar Alexander, newly elected chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and a McConnell ally, is also an appropriator. So are Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Conference vice chairman, and the canny Robert Bennett, McConnell’s close adviser who sits at the leadership table as the minority leader’s counsel. These Senate GOP leaders opt for pork as the party reaches a fork in the road.

That fork offers choices not only for current government spending but also for the Republican future. One way pressed by conservative reformers would either block an omnibus bill or stop it by sustaining a presidential veto, insisting on a CR that would save taxpayers $30 billion a year. The other course makes a deal with an omnibus bill $8 billion to $11 billion over Bush’s guidelines, virtually forcing him to sign it by inserting troop money, further depressing the demoralized Republican voter base. That was the course McConnell clearly indicated last week.

Launching his 2008 campaign in Kentucky that he has warned may be his most difficult re-election, McConnell in an ad stressed his performance as an appropriator delivering earmarks (highlighted by $280 million for his state’s universities). His office regularly issues statements bragging about how much bacon he brings home to Kentucky in appropriations bills. But to actually put bacon on the table, McConnell needs something like the Democratic-drafted omnibus bill that contains 11,932 earmarks. A CR would add no new earmarks.

Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, has said it would be "fair" to split the difference between Bush and the Democrats on spending. That would provide plenty of earmarks for McConnell — and Cochran. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the five-term Cochran is the new congressional king of pork this year with $774 million worth of earmarks in 12 spending bills. He has dethroned his predecessor as the top GOP appropriator, Sen. Ted Stevens, a six-termer who is the senior Republican in the Senate and now ranks second with $502 million.

These seasoned purveyors of pork outgun and outnumber GOP reformers such as Sen. Jim DeMint, a first-termer from South Carolina, who told me: "A CR is the only way to keep spending at any sensible level. An omnibus bill would be a defeat for the Republicans. I don’t see any reason to cave in on our principles. The Republicans have no discipline when it comes to appropriations." DeMint was careful not to mention McConnell and the other Republican appropriators by name, but there was no doubt whom he was talking about.