Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The sterile, confused lame-duck session of the Republican-controlled 109th Congress ended with a quiet victory by reformers that staved off an estimated 10,000 earmarks. But it could not be called a farewell to pork. Last Thursday, as the House neared adjournment, Democrats signaled they may countenance a return to free and easy spending ways when they assume the majority Jan. 4.

The hero of the lame-duck session was freshman Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. He was instrumental in blocking a Senate-House conference on a military construction appropriations bill, which would then be used as the last train out of town to carry pork. But just as the reformers were cheering last Thursday, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats defeated a procedure designed to inhibit Pentagon earmarks.

That leaves an unanswered question for the new Democratic majority. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the dynamic new member of the House Democratic leadership, has exhorted colleagues not to forget that their campaign against the Republican "climate of corruption" brought them into power. But does Emanuel's concept of reform go beyond new lobbyist control regulations and extend to the bipartisan addiction to pork-barrel spending?

The first closed-door meeting of Republican senators following their drubbing in the election erupted in discord after the leadership laid out plans for an omnibus spending bill, putting all unfinished appropriations bills in one package. That would provide a cornucopia of earmarks for members of Congress to bring home to their constituents.

But DeMint rose to make clear that he and his fellow freshman Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn, would use the many parliamentary devices at their disposal to block an omnibus bill. Their alternative was what is called a continuing resolution, extending spending at its present level into next February. That meant the lame-duck session would be porkless.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the old appropriator renowned for delivering pork home to Alaska, erupted with an exhibition of his famous hair-trigger temper. Sen. Thad Cochran, a courtly Southern gentleman and Stevens's successor as Appropriations Committee chairman, made the case in calmer language. Sen. John McCain, happy to have two Senate rookies pick up the anti-pork mantle he has carried for many years, was making snide comments in a stage whisper. But DeMint was not about to be moved by either threats or persuasion.

Robert Novak

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

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