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Obama Faces Democratic Opposition On Earmarks

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Today, President Obama quietly signed into law a giant and long delayed omnibus spending bill. It will keep the government running through September. The price tag is $410 billion but most of the fuss - and there's been a quite a fuss - has been over less than two percent of that, the two percent that will bankroll lawmakers pet project known as earmarks. Mr. Obama campaigned on earmark reform and he promised to take a harder line next time. NPR's David Welna has this story.

WELNA: President Obama dubbed the omnibus he signed imperfect. But he also sought to give the bill a positive spin calling it a departure point for more far reaching change.

President BARACK OBAMA: So let there be no doubt this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business. And a beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and demand.

WELNA: But those who demand an end to earmarks might be dismayed at what else President Obama had to say.

Pres. OBAMA: Done right earmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their districts and that's why I've opposed their outright elimination.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): Candidly, why be an appropriator if you can't help your state?

WELNA: That's California Democrat Dianne Feinstein a 16 year veteran of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Feinstein says rather than squabbling over earmarks congress should deal with them as a legitimate part of its power of the purse.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: (unintelligible) that earmarks are to be a certain part of the budget. They've been ratcheted down over the years. Continue to ratchet down and set a percent. So everyone one of us that's chairman of an appropriation sub-committee knows exactly what we have to work with.

WELNA: President Obama had his own suggestions today. He called on Congress to require that all earmark requests be posted on members' websites. That those requests be scrutinized in public hearings and that there be competitive bidding for any earmark going to for-profit company. So critics of earmarks say they're essentially corrupting, that's because they say appropriators spread them around to members of both parties to buy support for spending bills from the rank and file. Republican Senator John McCain is one of the most outspoken critics, he says the earmarks and the omnibus were not chosen on their merits.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): They're in there because of the political clout in seniority of members of Congress. That's what this is all about, Mr. President, political influence.

WELNA: President Obama said he plans to use some of his own political influence when it comes to earmarks.

Pres. OBAMA: If my administration evaluates an earmark and determines that it has no legitimate public purpose then we will seek to eliminate it.

WELNA: So the president is saying not all earmarks are bad, just the ones the Obama White House deems to be bad next time.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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