By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The huge federal transportation bill was in tatters in early March when U.S. Representative Mike Rogers posed a heretical idea for breaking through gridlock in the House.
In a closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans, Rogers recommended reviving a proven legislative sweetener that became politically toxic a year ago.
Bring back earmarks, Rogers told his colleagues.
Few members of Congress have been bold enough to use the "e" word since both the House and Senate temporarily banned the practice last year after public outcries about Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" and other pork barrel projects.
But as lawmakers wrestle with legislative paralysis, there are signs that earmarks - special interest projects that used to be tacked onto major bills - could make a comeback.
"I just got up ... and did it because I was mad because they were talking about how we can't get 218 votes," Rogers told Reuters, referring to the minimum of 218 votes needed to pass legislation in the 435-member House.
"There was a lot of applause when I made my comments. I had a few freshmen boo me, but that's okay. By and large it was very well embraced," he added.
New Republican members backed by the Tea Party movement have railed against earmarks as a symbol of out-of-control government spending and unaccountable lawmakers.
Congress has another nine months to operate under an earmark ban, so discussions on lifting the ban are in their early stages, members and aides say.
But on the House side, where a splintered Republican majority is struggling to muster enough votes to pass bills, second thoughts about the earmark ban are "pretty pervasive," said a senior aide.
Rogers' remarks in the closed caucus meeting in early March were echoed by two other Republican lawmakers, Representatives Louie Gohmert and Kay Granger, according to some at the meeting.
House Speaker John Boehner, who pushed for the earmark ban, is considering forming a committee to study earmarks reforms, according to Rogers. Other sources also said that during the closed meeting, the speaker said he would consider reforms, and other leading Republicans did not shoot down the idea.
Boehner has acknowledged that the ban makes his job more difficult. In past years, one reason the sprawling transportation bill could move through Congress with bipartisan support was because thousands of lawmakers' pet projects were tacked onto the bill, he has said.
But reviving earmarks is still so controversial that Boehner and other leaders are unlikely to publicly discuss it in an election year in which pork barrel spending is still under attack. The discussions so far appear to be among Republicans.
"The House did the right thing in instituting an earmark ban, and the American people strongly support it," a Boehner spokesman said in response to questions.
In the Senate, Thad Cochran, the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee - an earmark gateway in the old days - told Reuters: "At some point there will surely be conversations about alternatives" to the earmark ban. He was quick to add that he has not tried to initiate the conversation.
Democrats agreed to banning earmarks after suffering big defeats in 2010 congressional elections and after President Barack Obama warned he would veto bills containing them.
But like Republicans, Democrats have differing views on keeping the ban. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is on record defending earmarks, saying elected representatives are more in touch with local needs than executive branch bureaucrats.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan budget watchdog group, said discussions about reviving earmarks suggest the desperation of a Congress in which stalled legislation is now routine.
The difficulties in passing bills are leading lawmakers to conclude the only answer is to "bring the political grease back into the system," Ellis said.
BRING BACK THE GREASE
Political analysts have long referred to earmarks, or "member-directed funding" as it is sometimes known, as the grease enabling legislation to move through Congress.
Republican Representative Steven LaTourette, an 18-year House veteran, said the earmark ban "has affected discipline" within the party. "You can't get 218 votes (out of 242 Republican House members) and part of that has to be if you can't give people anything (earmarks), you can't take anything away from them."
If a member of Congress agrees with 90 percent of a pending bill but is "uncomfortable" with the other 10 percent, "Sometimes taking care of your district (with earmarks) made up for that 10 percent," he said.
Some believe earmarks got a bad rap.
Public outrage focused on projects like the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere" connecting the Alaskan mainland with an isolated island, or a teapot museum in North Carolina.
Other earmarks have funded crucial projects, proponents say. One example is the "Predator" drone, the unmanned military aircraft used in Afghanistan and other hot-spots to target militants without jeopardizing U.S. soldiers' lives, that came from a lawmaker's request.
Both sides in the debate agree that before earmarks resurface, reforms are essential.
Earmarking was long controversial because many of the projects showed up in the fine print of legislation without warning and with little or no public debate.
Congressman Gohmert believes the solution is rules to keep spending on specific companies and projects from being "air dropped" into bills without oversight.
"We can be specific without having it be crony capitalism, monuments to me, bridges to nowhere," Gohmert said.
Others propose limiting earmarks so that they only go to local or state government-backed projects or universities. And reforms should also break the links between campaign contributions and earmarked projects, members say.
In pitching earmarks, Gohmert and other Republican lawmakers and aides lament that the ban has been a boon to Democratic President Barack Obama, whose administration can still dole out projects as it sees fit.
"I think there's a way that it can be done that we take back the purse strings that the Constitution gives us without just handing sacks of money to the president," Gohmert said.
But even if momentum grows for an earmark revival, some members are unlikely to join in.
Representative Jim Jordan, who heads a conservative coalition in the House, told Reuters: "My read is that the ban on earmarks is where it needs to be."
And Senator Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican who wants a permanent ban, said earmarks should not be a tool for buying votes on important bills.
Pork barrel spending was "the bane of the American taxpayers' existence." he said.
(Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Vicki Allen)
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