Obama, Clinton join McCain vs. earmarks

March 10, 2008 6:11:46 PM PDT
Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday joined Republican presidential candidate John McCain and a small band of GOP senators in making a run this week against the billions of dollars in home-state pet projects Congress funds each year.

Obama, locked in a head-to-head battle with Clinton for the Democratic nomination, was the first to declare through a spokesman Monday that he would support a one-year moratorium on so-called earmarks when it comes up for a vote later this week. Clinton followed shortly afterward through a spokesman.

The poobahs of pork in both parties as well as their Senate leaders suddenly found themselves on the spot after stalwartly defending lawmakers' practice of steering federal dollars to their home states.

Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi had signaled privately to fellow Democrats that she supports an election-year break from earmarks as she follows the lead of House GOP leader John Boehner.

Obama joined with other lawmakers last year to obtain almost $100 million worth of earmarks for Illinois. Clinton worked with others to win $342 million in pet projects for New York and Pelosi obtained $94 million for California.

"We can no longer accept a process that doles out earmarks based on a member of Congress' seniority, rather than the merit of the project," Obama said in a statement. "We can no longer accept an earmarks process that has become so complicated to navigate that a municipality or non-profit group has to hire high-priced D.C. lobbyists to do it."

McCain, the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, has fought ? and lost ? many battles over earmarks before, but his new status has longtime rivals in his own party rethinking their positions.

The moves by Clinton and Obama have also put Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats in a quandary. Reid issued a statement early Monday reiterating his support for Congress' right to direct money back home for roads and other projects.

McCain is among only six members of the Senate who don't ask for pet projects. Obama does, though his requests are generally modest when compared to more senior senators like Illinois colleague Dick Durbin, a fellow Democrat.

South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint, a first-term McCain ally in the fight against pork, is the main sponsor of a one-year ban on earmarks, the term lawmakers use for the pet projects they slip into must-pass legislation.

A vote is coming this week as the Senate debates its annual budget plan. McCain is expected to give a floor speech to rally Republicans behind the idea and to make time in his busy campaign schedule to cast a rare vote.

"The jig's up on earmarks," DeMint said Monday. "McCain not only supports the moratorium but he's going to veto any bill that comes to him with earmarks in it. And so, any Republican at this point should say, 'It's time for us to take a time out.'" Old-school senior Republicans such as former Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi have long teamed with Democrats to block moves by McCain to cut earmarks, typically by margins of 2-to-1 or so.

Now, with Obama and Clinton endorsing the idea and Pelosi poised to go along with demands by House Republicans to call a temporary halt to earmarking, momentum is clearly on the side of anti-earmark reformers.

"This should be a no-brainer for Republicans. It shows you how dysfunctional some of these folks are that this is not a complete layup," said former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

"If they let this fail, and then Nancy Pelosi gets out and gets to the right of the Republicans on earmarks, then they can just forget about being the majority party for well into the future," Toomey said.

That doesn't mean there won't be resistance from old timers who believe Congress should stoutly defend their power of the purse.

"Sounds like a bad idea to me," said Cochran. "I don't think that's very wise, to give up a constitutional responsibility that is given to Congress."

Members of both parties in the Senate will gather separately behind closed doors Tuesday to decide whether to embrace McCain's ? and now Obama's and Clinton's ? latest quest to curb their appetites for earmarks.

Pelosi also has many stalwart defenders of earmarks in her party, particularly among freshmen who this year received a disproportionate share of them to tout to voters in what, for many will be tough re-election campaigns.

But she's helped by the fact that no one expects many spending bills to pass before Election Day anyway, so accepting a temporary ban isn't much of a sacrifice

Still, it's difficult to overestimate Congress' addiction to earmarks, which has only grown as more and more have been larded out. Almost $15 billion in pet projects were disclosed this year, but that is still below what Republicans devoted to them in 2006, the last year they ran Congress.

Actually, a ban on earmarks is not new for Democrats. They imposed a moratorium on them for the 2007 fiscal year that ended last Oct. 1 in finishing up spending bills left over by Republicans.

Later, they imposed new earmark disclosure rules and made cutbacks when passing the appropriations bills for the current year.

That did nothing to curb criticism from the White House and GOP conservatives.

Many Republicans, especially in the House, say their party has lost its way on federal spending and earmarks. They argue that's a major reason Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006. Now, in their uphill struggle to win control back, Republicans see voters' disgust with earmarks as a potent campaign issue.