Robert Novak

The "Reid amendment" is only part of a plan by Coburn and his fellow first-term Republican senator, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, to make sure that earmark reform is included in new ethical standards. Democratic efforts, particularly in the Senate, have concentrated on conduct of lobbyists and not members of Congress. Although the House version passed last week is stronger, the final compromise coming out of a Senate-House conference may barely touch the surface of earmarks.

The Senate version mandates transparency only for the few projects listed in legislation and not the accompanying reports. That would ignore up to 98 percent of the 12,852 earmarks in the last Congress. Reid launched his career as majority leader last Thursday with a furious fight to preserve this condition.

Reid moved to table (that is, kill) DeMint's amendment, which would substitute in the Senate ethics package the language covering all earmarks as contained in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's House bill. Reid was surprised to fail, 46 to 51, with nine Democrats abandoning their majority leader. The Senate routine is that when a tabling motion fails, the bill is passed by a voice vote. But an obviously distressed Reid took the floor to hold open the vote indefinitely on DeMint's bill, contending that the Democratic-controlled House had acted in haste.

The two leading Senate Democratic reformers, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Barack Obama of Illinois, who two days earlier lavished praise on Reid's ethical leadership, voted against him on the tabling motion. However, of the nine freshman Democrats who also had honored Reid, only two -- Jim Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana -- voted for transparency. The other seven toed Reid's party line. (Seven Republicans voted with Reid, but they included Minority Whip Trent Lott.)

Minority Whip Dick Durbin saved Reid further embarrassment Friday by proposing some minor technical changes in the DeMint amendment and claiming victory. A tougher test for Democrats will come this week on efforts to remove family, Reid's and everybody else's, from the earmark game.

Robert Novak

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

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