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More than two dozen senators — most of them Republicans — put hundreds of homestate projects in the $1.3 trillion bill to fund the federal government even though they recently voted to ban so-called earmarks.
The effort to pass the 1,924-page bill collapsed Thursday night after complaints by conservatives over its complexity and size and the relatively few days to be devoted to debating its merits. Anti-spending tea party activists were angry, too, especially since they had helped propel Republicans to big gains in the midterm elections.
A handful of Republican senators needed to advance the massive measure withdrew their support for the bill, leaving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., little recourse but to pull it back.
Still, the bill’s $8 billion in earmarks showed that some GOP senators voicing outrage over the measure had made no effort to dump their own pet projects. The earmark-free approach to legislation that had been promised by 39 Republicans and Democrats, though their pledge came well after work had begun on the measure.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for example, said he’s unalterably opposed to the bill, but it still had $85 million of his earmarks, including $18 million for a railhead upgrade at Fort Knox and a $3 million infantry squad battle course at Fort Campbell. All told, McConnell obtained 38 earmarks, according to a database put together by the office of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
The bill and accompanying reports contained 6,714 earmarks costing $8.3 billion, Coburn said. Twenty-three Republicans and four Democrats who had voted for the immediate ban on earmarks ended up with pet projects in the bill.
At a news conference Wednesday, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, assaulted the bill, but then reporters questioned why they had earmarks in the measure.
Thune backed 17 earmarks for $23 million, including $500,000 for a terminal expansion at the Rapid City airport and $1 million for improvements to state route 73 in Jackson County.
“I support those projects, but I don’t support this bill,” Thune said.
Cornyn obtained numerous earmarks as well, including $110,000 for the Texas State Technical College and $500,000 for a wastewater plant in Edinburg, Texas.
“I’m going to vote against this bill and refuse all those earmarks,” Cornyn said. As long as they remained in the bill, however, Cornyn’s earmarks had been set to move ahead. His requests were made in the spring.
Critics pounced on what they deemed double-talk.
“Many of the same senators who are criticizing … earmarks have earmarks in the bill,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who obtained $89 million worth of them. “That is the height of hypocrisy — to stand up and request an earmark and then fold your arms and piously announce, ‘I’m against earmarks.'”
Such criticism, however, also could be directed at Colorado Democrats Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, who voted for the earmark ban two weeks ago. The Senate bill included a $700,000 earmark sought by Bennet for a new water line for Trinidad, Colo., and $500,000 for a wastewater project in Idaho Springs, Colo., requested by Udall.
President Barack Obama didn’t escape the criticism. Just a month ago, he said the nation can’t afford “wasteful earmark spending.”
But his administration made it clear he would accept the earmark-laden Senate bill over a less expensive, earmark-free version passed by the House last week. Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed the Senate version and its $678 billion for the Pentagon and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about $19 billion more than in the House bill.
House Republicans who swore off earmarks earlier this year were sharply critical of the president.
“This is a ‘Christmas tree’ our nation simply can’t afford,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who in January will succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California as House speaker. “The ball is in President Obama’s court.”
The Senate voted 56-39 on Nov. 30 to kill a Coburn proposal to ban earmarks. Only Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, actually wrote to the Appropriations Committee to withdraw his pet spending items.
“I had a number of requests in and I voted for the moratorium and I thought, in all honesty, I need to withdraw my requests,” said Hatch, “and I did.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., withdrew his earmark requests last April after an earlier vote on banning the practice.
The most commonly accepted definition of an earmark is a project not requested by the president but inserted into one of the annual spending bills.
Defenders of earmarks pointed out that the money for congressional earmarks represented a tiny portion of the bill — less than 1 percent — and that lawmakers know the needs of their states and congressional districts better than administration bureaucrats. And just because something is in the president’s budget doesn’t mean that it’s not pork.
“If you look up earmark in the dictionary, it means ‘to designate or set aside.’ It is not ‘in addition to,'” said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah. “If the Congress does not exercise its constitutional authority to designate where the funds will go, the administration will usurp that authority and you will get every bit as much pork-barrel spending.”
Such arguments, however, were drowned out by protests from tea party activists and other opponents of the projects, who make fun of earmarks like $100,000 obtained by Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., to renovate the Edgar Allan Poe museum in the Bronx, a cottage where the poet lived for the final three years of his life.
Other senators with earmarks in the bill after voting last month to ban them included Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas; Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press