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Saturday, February 2, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Letter from Washington | Alicia Mundy

Earmarks tiff spells trouble for Reichert

Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — The Republican Party has a big problem on Capitol Hill that is now Dave Reichert's problem, too.

The battle over earmarks — a way members of Congress distribute federal largesse to their districts and companies back home — has split Republicans into factions, leaving them in a bind over how to fill a vacant Republican seat on the House Appropriations Committee. Seven Republicans have tossed their names forward, and one of the top contenders is Rep. Reichert, R-Auburn.

But getting that seat might weigh down his re-election race as much as boost it.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., an anti-earmark activist who has annoyed his party leaders by opposing all "pork barrel" spending, wants that open seat.

GOP chiefs reportedly do not want Flake on the 67-member panel, possibly because they don't want him primly lecturing them as they barter with Democrats over their pork projects.

But Flake is drumming up national anger against earmarks. The dispute provoked a fight two weeks ago at the GOP's annual winter retreat.

Besides Flake's allies, another faction wanted a yearlong moratorium on earmarks because it's an election-year issue, and yet another faction said things are fine as they are, because a politician's job is to bring home the proverbial bacon to constituents.

Reichert says he's against wasteful earmarks. But he is not in Flake's camp, and his Web site touts the millions of dollars he's won his district.

He's in a tough re-election race against Democrat Darcy Burner, and last week Reichert told CQ Today, a Capitol Hill newspaper, that he needs a seat on Appropriations "now," and that less-vulnerable candidates can wait their turn.

GOP leaders will not name anyone to the committee until Feb. 11, by which time they hope to end their internal policy war.

Last week, Republicans rearranged some of their sitting Appropriations members into new subcommittee slots. They have left open seats only on two B-list panels that oversee budgets for the Capitol Hill police, federal courts, the House and Senate, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy — which Reichert might like with his law-enforcement background.

But these don't handle the bigger-ticket spending for defense, veterans, public lands or transportation.

A seat on a secondary "pork" committee might open Reichert to opposition campaign ads claiming that he is an old-style earmarker, while giving him little chance to direct real money back home.

Meantime, Republican chiefs are deliberating and Reichert is dangling.

Letter from Washington is an examination of the culture of politics and power in the nation's capital. Alicia Mundy can be reached at 202-622-7457 or at amundy@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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