WASHINGTON — Tensions between Republicans and Democrats over the controversial practice of earmarking funds for pet projects sparked a finger-pointing clash on the House floor earlier this month and an unusual attempt Tuesday to reprimand a powerful -- and sometimes volatile -- Democratic congressman.
The conflict arises from the switch in control of Congress. In the fall campaign, Democrats used public distaste with earmarks to highlight Republican scandals and criticize a GOP "culture of corruption." Now that Democrats are in charge and control the earmark process, Republicans are aggressively seeking to turn the tables on them, attacking the earmarks in their bills.
This debate played out this month in a vivid exchange between Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a former FBI agent, and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), an ex-Marine, after Rogers led a failed bid to scuttle $23 million for a project in Murtha's district. Rogers charged that Murtha confronted him on the House floor a week later and shouted something like: "I hope you don't have any earmarks in the defense appropriations bill, because they are gone and you will not get any earmarks now and forever."
"I replied to him that threatening retribution is not the way we do business in Congress," Rogers said in the Republican radio address last weekend. "To which he replied, 'That's the way I do it.' "
Murtha, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), has not directly responded, though his office issued a statement that said: "The committee and staff give every Democrat and Republican the same consideration." Murtha sits on the appropriations committee's Subcommittee on Defense.
On Tuesday, Democrats thwarted an attempt by Rogers to get the House to reprimand Murtha. The resolution was tabled without debate on a nearly party-line vote of 219 to 189.
After the vote, House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said the action sent "a message to the American people that our ethics rules are meaningless, and that it is OK for members of Congress to be threatened and intimidated when they try to crack down on wasteful spending."
Two Democrats voted against tabling the resolution: Reps. Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. In a statement, Blumenauer said his vote was "not a statement of judgment on the allegations since I don't know the facts about what happened, and that's exactly the point."
Citing a pledge the Democrats made, he continued: "A discussion of a potential violation of House rules is in order if we are going to be the most ethical and transparent Congress in history."
Citizens Against Government Waste, which monitors earmarks and pork-barrel spending, weighed in Tuesday, naming Murtha "porker of the month."
The $23-million project in Murtha's district, the National Drug Intelligence Center, has been criticized as costly and unnecessary.
The spat comes as House Democrats this week take up a long-promised lobbying overhaul bill that critics say doesn't go far enough.
Republicans, for their part, are continuing to deal with political fallout from corruption probes. Two GOP congressmen stepped down from key committees recently after FBI raids.
Earmarking -- the process by which lawmakers from both parties slip items often desired by special interests, lobbyists or constituents into spending bills -- played a role in scandals involving imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).
When they were in the majority, Republicans used earmarks to reward or punish colleagues. A few years ago, the GOP chairman of an appropriations subcommittee tried to deny funding for pet projects sought by Democrats because they refused to support his spending bill.
But after Democrats gained power in January, they passed -- with great fanfare -- new rules aimed at curbing earmark abuses, including forbidding trading votes for earmarks.