WASHINGTON -- They blocked the House of Representatives from approving a federal budget. They nearly killed a package of ethics and lobbying legislation. They got a stern warning from the White House for larding an emergency spending bill with pet spending projects. And they are led by Republicans.
Who are these guys?
They are the money handlers of Congress -- the members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees who pull the strings of the federal purse. With that money, they can dictate federal policy and influence elections.
Some key votes this week in the House and Senate, however, could mark the beginning of new restraints on appropriators.
Their ability to dole out cash as favors to lawmakers, donors, lobbyists and constituents is under increasing attack. Critics of the projects -- called earmarks -- which appropriators slip into large bills that fund federal agencies, say they symbolize out-of-control spending and lead to ethics scandals.
One former appropriator, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, is in prison, convicted of taking bribes in exchange for defense contract appropriations. Another appropriator, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, was forced to step down as the top Democrat on the House ethics committee amid questions about money he had inserted into spending bills that benefited friends and associates.
The simple answer, conservatives say, is to get rid of earmarks.
"You can't complain about the sharks when you're holding a bucket of chum," said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican and leading fiscal conservative.
The appropriators are fighting back. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, a California Republican, led his panel's 37 Republicans in a revolt last month that blocked a House vote on the budget because it would have tied their hands on earmarks.
Last week Lewis brought lobbying and ethics legislation to a standstill because it contained similar terms. The impasse was resolved, at least temporarily, when Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, and Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, promised to apply earmark restrictions to all committees, not just appropriators. The House is to vote on the measure this week.
Meanwhile, Senate appropriators added more than $14 billion in earmarks to emergency spending for Iraq and hurricane-ravaged states. President Bush threatens to veto any bill that exceeds his requested amount, but Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, is trying to block amendments that would strip out $2.7 billion.
Stopping earmarks, however, is not easy. The Constitution gives Congress the power to set spending, and lawmakers guard that power jealously. And they sometimes say one thing but vote another way.
Thirty-five Republican senators applauded Bush's threat to veto the emergency spending bill if it grew too much and promised to stand with him, if necessary. But the first effort to trim fat from the bill -- an amendment to knock out $700 million for a railroad replacement in Cochran's home state -- failed 49-48. Of the 35 Republicans who said they would sustain a Bush veto, 15 voted to keep the railroad money in the bill. Seven of them were Appropriations Committee members.
The Senate will resume the effort to whittle down the spending bill this week.