FAIRBANKS - Congress appears unlikely to pass any more spending bills in the current session, leaving millions of dollars of earmarks written by Alaska's Republicans to be judged in negotiations controlled by Democrats next year.
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Whether the power shift poses any real danger to the projects is far from clear, given that the most persistent critics of the the earmarks have not been Democrats but conservative Republicans.
Sen. Ted Stevens, the author of many of the bills, has often said that he has always received fair consideration from Democrats and has extended the same when he was in charge.
"This is the seventh time control has changed since I've been in the job," Stevens said last week. "As far as the small states are concerned, it doesnt make much difference."
Still, Stevens said, the current delay is worrisome.
"The Alaska issues that are in appropriations bills that are stalled are, some of them, very important. Some of it is money to help West Coast villages continue to recover from that bad storm they had in 2005 and earlier this year," Stevens said.
Of the 11 standard bills covering the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, only two - defense and homeland security - have become law.
The delay creates problems for federal departments, Stevens said. It also means programs that survive on year-to-year appropriations fall into limbo, because they aren't saved, even when Congress approves a "continuing resolution" to keep agencies running.
Stevens predicted last week that Congress, when it returns in early December, would pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running through January. That's when Congress will return with Democrats in control of the leadership and appropriations committees in both bodies.
Stevens said even the annual military construction bill, normally an easy vote for most members, became hung up on disputes this year. The Senate passed its version Nov. 14. But then senators and representatives couldnt agree to hold a conference committee to work out details of differences with the House version.
"If we cant get the conferees appointed for that, theres no reason to try to take any other bills to conference," Stevens said.
So the whole process ground to a halt last week and won't likely restart when Congress returns in December.
"At the moment, the duration and content of the lame duck session are uncertain," said John Katz, head of Gov. Frank Murkowski's Washington office. "However, the most likely scenario is that Congress will simply pass a continuing resolution on the budget, probably until the end of January, and then go home."
Part of the problem is the usual difficulty with reconciling differences between House and Senate bills.
"Also, certain budget hawks are objecting to the amount of spending, earmarks and riders," Katz said.
Congress has made some changes this year in the proposed spending bills that identify congressional earmarks and make their purposes clearer.
"Given the congressional scandals, there is more transparency, but not nearly as much transparency as a lot of members would like to see," Katz said. "And the number of earmarks appears to be down somewhat but certainly not by a significant amount."
Katz said more than half the budget requests made by Alaska's state government arent threatened by the delay in the spending bills because they concern programs that the continuing resolution will cover, such as fisheries research.
Other, single-year requests won't fare so well, he said.
"We doubt that our transportation requests will be approved. We had a request, for example, for the Alaska Railroad and it appears unlikely that Congress will pass any earmarks for transportation generally," Katz said.
The state's railroad request would continue studies of extending the tracks into Canada, Katz said.
Katz said the Senate also tried to complete the agriculture spending bill last week but "even that was blocked."
Stevens, speaking with Alaska reporters, said he has been unfairly targeted for his earmarks on the bill.
"The person who is complaining has twice as many as I do," he said. The fact isn't obvious because the member isn't on the Senate Appropriations Committee and so the earmarks were added by the chairman, Stevens said.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has been the Alaska delegation's most vocal critic and has done much of the objecting.
Rep. Don Young, in an interview with Alaska reporters earlier this month, said he thinks Coburn's criticisms of earmarks are one reason the Republicans lost the majority.
"Hes been a spoiler from the get-go," Young said.
But Coburn and other senators have drawn praise from fiscal conservatives for bringing the spending bills to a halt and preventing negotiators from wrapping all the bills into a single "omnibus" package.
Coburn "estimates that Congress can save the taxpayers a cool $17.1 billion by passing a resolution that would continue spending at present levels rather than enacting an omnibus bill laden with earmarks," wrote columnist Robert Novak.
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