Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Though obscured by the complexities of legislation, reformers trying to rein in congressional spending excesses scored signal victories in the House and Senate in the same hour late Thursday afternoon.

In the process, chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees suffered humiliating defeats. In the House, Chairman Jerry Lewis bowed to Republican leaders to reform runaway earmark spending. In the Senate, Chairman Thad Cochran lost an effort to stop Sen. Tom Coburn's crusade against earmarks.

Terrified by possible loss of their majorities in November, Republicans in Congress may have turned a corner in casting off the tyranny of the appropriators over the spending process. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert exerted his will, and newly installed Majority Leader John Boehner registered his first triumph. In scoring his first floor victory over an earmark, Coburn showed he is more than a nuisance freshman senator and, allied with Sen. John McCain, a force to be reckoned with.

The House recessed in disarray three weeks ago when Lewis forced the leadership to cancel consideration of the budget resolution because he opposed restrictions on earmarking by the appropriators. When I disclosed this in a column, a defiant Lewis claimed the changes "would have been a boon for Democrats."

But when Lewis and the appropriators returned to Washington last week, they encountered an unfriendly climate. Hastert and Boehner did not blink. A clever career legislator, Lewis last Tuesday said he would accept earmark reforms if applied to all legislation, not just appropriations, when the lobbyist reform bill reached the floor Thursday. As Lewis knew, there was no way to make those changes in 48 hours.

Lewis's aim was to get the leadership to take the legislation off the floor rather than lose the vote on the rule permitting debate. But Hastert was not yielding this time, as he informed an emergency closed-door conference of all House Republicans at noon Thursday. Rep. Mike Pence, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told hushed colleagues that they must make a "bold statement" on reform or face disaster in November.

The bill looked dead that afternoon when the appropriators asked to confer with the leadership. Near the end of the meeting, the committee's most junior member -- Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana -- told how he had crossed the aisle to become a Republican in 2004. He said he would remain a Republican even if the party lost its majority this year, but declared the earmark reforms are essential.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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