WASHINGTON — The Senate's new Democratic leaders, the fragility of their thin majority on display for the first time, were set back Thursday when nine Democrats joined with Republicans in support of stricter House-passed rules on lawmakers' pet projects
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Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was forced to delay a final vote on a measure he opposes after losing 51-46 a parliamentary attempt to kill it.
The measure, an amendment to an ethics and lobbying bill, would have adopted a wider definition of "earmarks," specific projects inserted in bills, to include Corps of Engineer water projects, Pentagon weapon systems and items from other federal entities.
The language favored by Reid would require disclosure of only targeted funds directed to nonfederal entities such as city parks, state universities and private contractors. Reid crafted the ethics bill with Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but McConnell supported DeMint on the earmarks issue.
"If we're going to go through all this process, if we're going to change the laws and try to tell the American people that now you can see what we're doing, let's don't try to pull the wool over their eyes," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., sponsor of the amendment.
Among the Democrats siding with DeMint were possible presidential candidates Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John Kerry, D-Mass., freshmen Jim Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who faces a tough reelection bid in 2008.
DeMint insisted that the Senate definition would catch only about 5 percent of earmarks, saying that in most instances lawmakers insert their pet projects not into the bill itself but into the explanatory report language that accompanies the bill and is not subject to a vote.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said that of some 12,852 earmarks found in bills last year, only 534 would be subject to Senate disclosure rules.
The conservative DeMint praised new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for backing the more comprehensive earmark rules that the House approved last week. "I'm here to defend her language on behalf of the Democrat colleagues on the House side."
Power of the majority leader
After the move to kill the DeMint language failed, Democrats refused to allow the amendment to be approved by voice, a normal procedure, and an hour later Reid called the entire Senate to the floor to beseech them to reconsider. He did not set a time for a final vote.
"It's important that the Senate rules be amended slowly and with careful bipartisan deliberation," Reid said, stressing that the House didn't spend much time on their version and the Senate approach was "so much better."
Reid argued that his version was stronger than DeMint's in disclosing lawmakers seeking special tax benefits for a small group of people or an industry, and included language requiring lawmakers to certify that they had no personal stake in earmarks they support.
Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also said the DeMint provision was "unworkable" because it was so broad that it could be applied to thousands of projects included in federal spending bills.
Nine Democrats and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut voted against killing the DeMint amendment. Seven Republicans voted against DeMint. The Democrats hold a majority with 49 Democrats and two independents who support the party. Republicans hold 49 seats.
The ethics and lobbying bill, which toughens laws barring lobbyists from providing gifts, meals and free travel to lawmakers, is expected to be on the Senate floor through next week.
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