San Diego Union Tribune

June 25, 2006

Bilbray not yet at home in House

Positions prompt conservatives' ire

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – Oh, for a honeymoon that had lasted two weeks.

Brian Bilbray got no such break. Sworn in to Congress just seven days before, the newly elected lawmaker on Tuesday found himself going head to head with budget-cutting conservatives who questioned his support for congressional “earmarks” and his vote for a congressional pay raise.

The conflict – played out for San Diegans last week on local radio – demonstrated that Bilbray may have to walk a political tightrope as he faces a November election for a full two-year seat.

“I find it interesting that conservatives are already critiquing Bilbray negatively,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a University of Southern California political scientist. “I think what they're doing is sending Bilbray a message: Shape up or ship out.”

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Bilbray, 55, recently elected to finish the term of imprisoned former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, was sworn in June 13. The next day, the Carlsbad Republican joined a majority of House members in voting against an attempt to remove earmarks from a large spending bill, including some for the San Diego area.

The long-standing practice of earmarking has been under scrutiny since its abuse led to an eight-year prison term for Cunningham, who admitted taking bribes from defense contractors. Earmarks also played a role in the investigation that led to a guilty plea from lobbyist Jack Abramoff for influence peddling and investigations into other Republican lawmakers.

Earmarks are money for pet projects that congressional members slip into bills, often without public scrutiny or hearings.

The same day as the vote on earmarks, Bilbray joined 248 other House members who rejected an attempt to force a vote on the $3,300 cost-of-living adjustment that will raise congressional pay Jan. 1 to $168,500. Congressional pay raises happen automatically each year, unless House members vote to block the increases.

Andrew Roth, governmental affairs director for the conservative Club for Growth, took aim at those votes on Roger Hedgecock's radio show.

“How many congressmen need to be put into jail, investigated or indicted for this earmarking process?” said Roth, whose seven-year-old organization represents 35,000 members who want Washington to cut federal spending.

Bilbray retorted: “I wouldn't impugn your reputation. You've got items in (the earmarks) I definitely didn't like, but you also had items I did like.”

Roth, in a subsequent interview, said Bilbray's support for the earmarks was objectionable “because during his campaign he said he was against hidden earmarks, then days after he's elected, he voted for a bill with over 1,500 earmarks, most of which were hidden.”

During his campaign for Cunningham's seat against Democrat Francine Busby, Bilbray said he supported earmarks as long as they weren't negotiated behind closed doors. He proposed a ban on such secrecy.

While Roth said that Bilbray abandoned that campaign stand with last week's vote, the congressman said he objected to earmarks that lawmakers tuck into bills during conference negotiations – the process during which lawmakers iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of a spending bill.

A conference report rarely goes through a congressional committee hearing or a public airing. Appropriations bills – such as the one Bilbray voted on last week – get more public scrutiny.

Among the earmarked items in the Transportation-Treasury-Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill that Bilbray voted on were $500,000 for a college athletic facility in Yucaipa and $1.5 million to build a William Faulkner museum in Oxford, Miss.

“I said I was going to fight to change the system,” said Bilbray, noting that voting to remove the earmarks also would have cost San Diego money for key highway projects. “But you still have the responsibility to provide some kind of budget to the president to sign into law. It's a judgment call. It's always a judgment call.”

On May 3, the House passed a Republican ethics reform plan requiring members to put their names on earmarks. A tougher Democratic plan would have banned lobbyists from paying for lawmakers' trips, meals and gifts, but it failed. Bilbray called the GOP plan a “step in the right direction” during his campaign and has said he and his staff won't take gifts from lobbyists.

The 50th Congressional District that Bilbray will represent for the next six months, and for which he will compete again in November's election, is far more conservative than the more urban district he represented from 1995-2001. During his recent campaign, Bilbray sided with conservatives in calling for tighter border controls, and many believe his election victory hinged on that stand.

But Bilbray is far from a conservative's dream, and the right wing of his party seems determined to drum that into voters' minds.

In the past, Bilbray has supported a ban on assault weapons and has said he doesn't believe in overturning the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Last week's confrontation between Bilbray and the Club for Growth raised questions about whether continued conservative attacks on the new congressman might hurt the Republican Party in the fall election by persuading right-wing voters to stay away from the polls.

That dynamic appeared to hurt Bilbray in the April 11 special election, when he competed against other Republicans, but perhaps not so much against Democrat Busby in the June 6 runoff.

While many observers believe Bilbray will do well in November in a rematch against Busby, political observer Jack Pitney said Bilbray's “advantage isn't so enormous that he can take the seat for granted.”

“There's still a chance there could be a big downdraft in November,” said Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Bush's popularity plummets, more bad things happen in Iraq, the economy goes south – the possibilities are endless.”

Copley News Service intern Rebecca Go contributed to this report.

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