Senate Ignores McCain, Keeps Thousands of Earmarks

March 4, 2009 - 5:57 AM
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Washington (AP) - The Senate voted overwhelmingly to preserve thousands of earmarks in a $410-billion spending bill on Tuesday, brushing aside Sen. John McCain's claim that President Barack Obama and Congress are merely conducting business as usual in a time of economic hardship.
 
McCain's attempt to strip out an estimated 8,500 earmarks failed on a vote of 63-32. The Arizona senator's proposal also would have cut roughly $32 billion from the measure and kept spending at last year's levels in several federal agencies.
 
Last year's Republican presidential candidate said both he and Obama pledged during the campaign to "stop business as usual in Washington," and he quoted the president as having said he would go line by line to make sure money was spent wisely.
 
The White House has said that Obama intends to sign the legislation, casting it as leftover business from 2008. Spokesman Robert Gibbs pledged on Monday the White House will issue new guidelines covering earmarks for future bills.
 
McCain's proposal drew the support of 30 Republicans and two Democrats, and the outcome reflected the enduring value of earmarks to lawmakers. While polls routinely show these pet projects to be unpopular, local governments and constituents often covet them.
 
The maneuvering came on legislation to assure continued funding for several federal agencies past March 6. At $410 billion, the bill represents an 8 percent increase over last year's spending levels, more than double the rate of inflation.
 
Republicans made two other attempts during the day to reduce spending in the bill, but failed both times.
 
Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said McCain's call to hold spending level with a year ago "doesn't account for inflation." As an example, he said some programs would have to be cut if federal workers were to receive a pay raise.
 
The House passed the legislation last week, and Democratic leaders are working to clear it without changes so the president can sign it by Friday.
 
While Republican opposition in the House focused more on the bill's overall spending, McCain and allies turned the Senate spotlight squarely on earmarks.
 
"How does anyone justify some of these earmarks: $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa; $2 million 'for the promotion of astronomy' in Hawaii; $6.6 million for termite research in New Orleans; $2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in New York," he said.
 
He also noted the legislation includes 14 earmarks requested by lawmakers for projects sought by PMA Group, a lobbying company at the center of a federal corruption investigation.
 
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he would seek to have them removed.
 
Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates the legislation contains 8,570 disclosed earmarks worth $7.7 billion. House Democrats declined to provide an estimate of the number of pet projects in the bill, and put their cost at $3.8 billion.
 
Democrats also say the value of earmarks is 5 percent lower than the last time Congress approved spending bills for an entire year.
 
The earmark issue has been a thorny one for Obama, who successfully urged lawmakers to pass an economic stimulus bill without them. He deferred to lawmakers on the legislation now moving through Congress, but his aides have worked to make it appear that he is merely acquiescing in what lawmakers and the White House had been prepared to do at the end of the Bush administration.
 
McCain ridiculed that argument in an animated speech on the Senate floor on Monday, asking, "does that mean that last year's president will sign this pork-barrel bill?"
 
At the White House, Gibbs was deflecting questions on the same subject.
 
Asked why Obama would sign the bill when he was overturning numerous policies put in place by former President George W. Bush, he said, "I think that you'll see that the president is going to draw some very clear lines about what's going to happen going forward."