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Earmark Nation

By Kimberley Strassel

Newly minted presidential nominee John McCain stepped into the Rose Garden this week to receive President Bush's blessing. What the cameras didn't catch were pork-addicted congressional Republicans blowing raspberries from their offices.

With all the talk about how Mr. McCain needs to unify his party, lost has been the question of whether some people will let him. Washington Republicans know he's their best shot at retaining the White House. Yet many remain ambivalent about him -- not because they question his conservatism, but out of resentment that he may get in the way of their earmarks.

This has resulted in a behind-the-scenes brawl, as spend-happy Republicans resist efforts by wiser heads to fall in behind Mr. McCain's anti-earmark message. At best, the spenders risk an embarrassing pummeling by their own nominee that could hurt them in their own re-election campaigns. At worst, they could undercut one of Mr. McCain's more persuasive messages.

They shouldn't count on Mr. McCain cutting them slack. He's always reveled in publicly humiliating pork-barrelers, including those in his party, and seems gleeful at the prospect of using his new podium to continue his crusade. He has no reason to back down now. Unorthodox as he's been on some conservative issues, on earmarks Mr. McCain has the full backing of an American public.

House Minority Leader John Boehner gets all this, and now believes there's more political mileage in thumping his opponents over pork than in retaining it for his party. He's spent the past two months pounding Democrats to agree to an earmark moratorium, even forcing a vote in a budget markup this week (not a single Democrat voted for it). The affair has left Speaker Nancy Pelosi red-faced, as she and her team struggle to justify the very pork they promised to rein in during the 2006 election campaign.

It's been embarrassing enough that even some in her party are refusing to hold ranks. California's Henry Waxman, a powerful committee chairman, recently intoned that "Congressional spending through earmarks was out of control" and announced he'd ask for none himself this year.

This sort of success has helped inspire some doubtful Republicans. At the recent House Republican retreat, several previous worshippers at the earmark church announced they were switching religions. Discussions have started between the McCain camp and the House GOP about areas on which to unify messages. Earmarks is a hot topic, putting spenders on the defensive.

The problem is the Senate, where Republicans have left House colleagues to twist in the wind. Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran, ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, brought home more pork than any other member of Congress -- some $837 million.

The Senate GOP leadership is no better, with former Whip Trent Lott finishing his last year in office with a $311 million haul. Driving this is the old philosophy that bacon is necessary to win elections. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is already running re-election ads in Kentucky boasting about the $200 million he secured for universities, as well as a hefty buyout he secured for his state's tobacco farmers.

The leadership's sop to reform has instead been an earmark "working committee," tasked with developing a set of reforms. Its members? Mr. Cochran, of course. There's also Georgia's Johnny Isakson ($161 million in pork last year); Indiana's Richard Lugar ($131 million) and Idaho's Mike Crapo ($121 million). Mr. McConnell did agree to include earmark antagonist Tom Coburn from Oklahoma ($0), undoubtedly for cover. But the committee is rigged to cater to the lowest common denominator. A better indicator of how many Republicans intend to rally behind the nominee will be how many vote for next week's budget amendment -- sponsored by South Carolina's Jim DeMint and endorsed by Mr. McCain -- to impose a Senate earmark moratorium.

Don't expect many. Earmark reformers have quietly been pushing senators to get in line with the House, and more importantly with Mr. McCain. All they've encountered is pushback. Several have privately fought against greater transparency, much less a moratorium. "We're not going to back [McCain] on earmarks, or on climate change or on immigration," piped one senior GOP aide this week. You read that right: Earmarks now rank among the bedrock conservative principles.

What's left is the price they'll pay, and that's where Mr. McCain comes in. Senate Republicans are facing their most brutal election environment in decades, fighting to defend several dozen seats. Diverging from Mr. McCain on earmarks guarantees it will be a defining issue in their re-election races. Smart opponents will use the split against vulnerable incumbents. Republicans will have to explain why Mr. McCain is wrong to want to shutdown the earmark factory, and their answers will be tragicomic.

Republicans are already getting a taste of this. Alaska's Ted Stevens's re-election bid is mired in an ugly investigation into alleged earmark corruption. Mr. McConnell is getting hit by a liberal clean-government group that says he's a tool of special interests.

The pork-barrelers also risk diluting one of Mr. McCain's winning messages. Hillary Clinton has a miserable earmark record, which Mr. McCain has used to embarrass her over a funding request for a Woodstock museum. Mr. Obama likes to point to Senate work to increase earmark transparency. But he too has asked for plenty of money and refused to release information about his early earmark requests. Either Democrat will want to neutralize this issue.

One way to do it is to point out that even Mr. McCain's own colleagues don't think it's that big of a deal. They can pick up on the lame Republican justifications for all this and throw them back at him. They could point to it as an example of Mr. McCain's inability to unite his party.

Republicans have a choice. They can unite behind the feisty Mr. McCain, and take a position that is true to their small-government principles, popular with the public and a smart political move. Or they can hurt themselves, and possibly their nominee, by sticking with the lard.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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