By Philip Rucker and Paul Kane Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 12:00 AM
Weeks after swearing off earmarks, many senators stand to gain tens of millions of dollars for pet projects in a massive spending bill that could be their last chance at the money before a more conservative Congress begins next month.
The $1.2 trillion bill, released on Tuesday, includes more than 6,000 earmarks totaling $8 billion, an amount that many lawmakers decried as an irresponsible binge following a midterm election in which many voters demanded that the government cut spending.
“The American people said just 42 days ago, ‘Enough!’ . . . Are we tone deaf? Are we stricken with amnesia?” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading earmark critic, said on the Senate floor, flipping through the 1,924-page bill as he pounded his desk.
The bill includes $18 million for two nonprofits associated with deceased Democrats, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Rep. John P. Murtha; $349,000 for swine waste management in North Carolina; and $6 million for a rural Iowa school program named after Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) epitomizes the conflicted nature of the debate. Formerly a member of the committee that doles out earmarks, McConnell reluctantly embraced a moratorium on the practice last month to send a signal that Republicans are serious about curbing spending.
Yet the legislation includes provisions requested this year by McConnell, including $650,000 for a genetic technology center at the University of Kentucky, according to an analysis of the bill by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog.
Saying he was now “vigorously in opposition” to the legislation, McConnell said Tuesday that rushed consideration of the bill “here on Christmas Eve” compelled him to try to block the bill through a filibuster. “I’m going to vote against things that arguably would benefit my state. I do not think this is the appropriate way to run the Senate,” he said.
But McConnell, like other new earmark opponents, stopped short of asking for his projects to be removed from the bill.
House Republicans are poised to take over the majority next year, vowing to prohibit the earmark practice on their side of the Capitol. With the Senate GOP also nominally opposed to these projects, many lawmakers view this as their last chance at delivering pork before serious fiscal belt tightening begins next year.
The bill’s fate was uncertain Tuesday, with a key test vote likely later in the week. The White House has not rallied behind the Democratic proposal. President Obama grew to oppose earmarks when he was a senator and he chided Congress when he signed a similarly massive spending bill in March 2009. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and dozens of his Republican colleagues sent Obama a letter requesting a veto of any spending measure filled with earmarks.
Crafted privately by a select bipartisan group of senators, the Appropriations Committee combined a dozen spending bills into a single measure that would fund the federal government for a full year. The committee said the bill is $29 billion below the fiscal 2011 budget proposed by President Obama.
The House took a different approach this month in passing an alternative spending bill, known as a “continuing resolution,” that would keep funding mostly level through September and contains no earmarks.
“While I appreciate the work that the House has done in producing a full year continuing resolution, I do not believe that putting the government on autopilot for a full year is in the best interest of the American people,” Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement Tuesday.
Democratic House leaders signaled they would be receptive to adopting the Senate’s spending bill. “It depends on what’s in it,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “We’ll wait and see what the Senate sends, but we will be receptive.”
Senate Democrats have not approved an earmark ban but seven of them sided with most Republicans on a procedural vote two weeks ago, making them unlikely to support the earmark-laden legislation now.
One such Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), ardently defended earmarks in early November but then supported the ban later in the month. Inouye’s bill includes many earmarks that would benefit Nelson, including $1 million for an environmental study of a proposed Interstate 75 project along the Everglades and $400,00 for a rural research park.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said he would oppose the bill, has a $379,000 earmark to study port dredging in Charleston, something he considers key to economic development. Earlier in the day, Graham said that rejecting the massive legislation was “a defining moment. If we’re going to embrace something new and understand the mandate, we won’t go down this road.”
Democratic aides noted that the $8 billion earmark sum is less than 1 percent of the entire bill and that this debate comes as the Senate was on the verge of approving an $858 billion tax package, which will add far more to the deficit. Republicans have refused any effort at offsetting the extension of the Bush-era tax breaks with revenue increases, while Obama and other Democrats resisted attempts to offset $57 billion in jobless benefits with other spending reductions.
Senators may vote as soon as Thursday, but Inouye is counting on support from committee Republicans as well as retiring GOP senators who have sent mixed signals on cutting the deficit.
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) announced this week he would oppose the extension of any tax cuts as an effort to reduce the more than $1 trillion annual deficit. On Tuesday, however, Voinovich pledged his support for the spending bill.
“I have a disagreement with my colleagues on earmarks,” Voinovich told reporters. “Earmarks really don’t add to the cost of government. What it does is it says that the money’s going to be spent for something else. We’re fooling the American people when we tell them the problem [with the deficit] is earmarks.”