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Obama beats early retreat on promise to fight pork

Andrew Taylor

Despite campaign promises to take a machete to lawmakers' pet projects, President Barack Obama is quietly caving to funding nearly 8,000 of them this year, drawing a stern rebuke Monday from his Republican challenger in last fall's election.

Arizona Sen. John McCain said it is "insulting to the American people" for Obama's budget director to indicate over the weekend that the president will sign a $410 billion spending bill with what Republicans critics say is nearly $5.5 billion in pet projects known as earmarks.

"So much for the promise of change," McCain said in the first of many assaults he is likely to make against pork-barrel spending this year.

Democrats contend that earmarks in the bill total only $3.8 billion, less than 1 percent of the amount Congress is approving to finance government programs through September. Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-earmark watchdog group, counts them differently and found $7.7 billion worth.

And Democrats are not alone in funding pet projects. As the minority party in Congress, Republicans claim roughly 40 percent of earmarks, though McCain and House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio, among others, refuse them. The largess is likely to help ease the measure's way through the Senate.

White House Budget Director Peter Orsazg said Sunday that the new administration wants to "move on ... get this bill done, get it into law and move forward." Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, called the bill and its 8 percent spending increase over 2008 "last year's business."

Obama is hardly the first president to promise to make Congress change its pork-barreling ways, and he certainly won't be the last. But he is the first to retreat so quickly, after only six weeks in the White House.

"I just went through a campaign ... where both candidates promised change in Washington, promised change from the wasteful, disgraceful, corrupting practice of earmarked, pork-barrel spending," McCain said. "So what we doing here? Not only business as usual, (but) an outrageous insult to the American people."

Only a week ago, Obama was pressing Democratic leaders in Congress to pare back the earmarks at a private White House meeting.

The president, however, hit a brick wall with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other Democrats who treasure their right to send taxpayer money to their states and districts for park improvements, university research grants, equipment for police departments and redevelopment projects.

"I'm here to tell everyone that we have an obligation as members of Congress to help direct spending to our states," Reid told reporters last week.

That's the kind of treatment President George W. Bush got from his allies in Congress after he took office eight years ago. Like Obama, he wanted to curb lawmakers' appetite for pet projects, but he also was firmly rebuffed.

In Bush's case, it was top GOP leaders — House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas — who defended earmarks and made the White House back off. They saw them as helping endangered Republicans keep their seats and a way to reward rank-and-file lawmakers willing to toe the leadership's line.

The common thread for Obama and Bush is that the strongest defenders of earmarks also were or are their top allies in Congress — the very people a president needs to advance the rest of his agenda.

Obama administration officials making the rounds on the Sunday news shows promised reductions in the next round of spending bills — and said it was simply time to move on from last year's business.

"We're going to have to make some other changes, going forward, to ... reduce the ultimate number," Emanuel said on CBS' "Face The Nation" on Sunday.

Obama, who swore off his own earmarks during last year's campaign after seeking them earlier in his Senate career, promised last year to force earmarks down to 1994 levels — when Democrats were ousted from their longtime congressional majorities.

Instead, according to an analysis by the GOP staff of the House Appropriations Committee, Obama is poised to sign a measure containing 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion. That's on top of $6.2 billion worth of pet projects passed last year when Congress adopted a bill bundling together the budgets for the Defense, Homeland Security and Veteran Affairs departments.

Because of rules imposed by Republicans in the waning days of GOP control of Congress and strengthened by Democrats two years ago, the earmark process is far more transparent than it was before. The cost and purpose of each earmark, along with its sponsor or sponsors, is identified in documents accompanying the legislation and on the Internet.

With the new transparency, it's far easier for voters and anti-pork groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group, to scrutinize legislation.

Among its many earmarks, the pending bill contains grants for social services agencies to help seniors and at-risk youth, money for police department to purchase dashboard cameras, agricultural research such as $1.7 million for honey bee research in Texas, road projects and help for transit agencies.

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The bill is HR 1105.

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On the Net:

House Appropriations Committee: http://appropriations.house.gov

The Associated Press
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