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Obama vs. Earmarks, Part II

By Ben Pershing

Just how "clean" will the supplemental spending bill be? It's a question worth asking, one day after President Obama asked Congress to give him $83.4 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as selected foreign aid programs.

When Obama signed the $410 billion omnibus spending bill in March, he was criticized from many quarters for not taking a tougher stand against the hundreds of earmarks in the measure, particularly since he had vowed during his campaign to reform the earmark process (though not to end them altogether). When he signed the omnibus, Obama said it "must mark an end to the old way of doing business."

With the supplemental bill, Obama now has a chance to prove whether he meant those words. The president did signal a tough approach yesterday. In his letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) officially asking for the cash, Obama wrote:

"I also urge the Congress to focus on the needs of our troops and our national security, and not to use the supplemental to pursue unnecessary spending. I want the Congress to send me a focused bill, and to do so quickly. When this request returns to me as legislation ready to be signed, it should remain focused on our security. It is important that we follow the same approach we applied to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and keep extraneous and unnecessary projects out of this legislation."

Asked for Obama's official stance on earmarks in the upcoming supplemental, a White House spokesman pointed Capitol Briefing toward that specific language above. And for once, Obama and congressional Republicans are largely singing the same tune.

In a statement released today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said "it is imperative that this Democrat-led Congress resist the temptation to use this must-pass bill to leverage additional and extraneous spending and focus instead on committing resources strictly for the defense of our nation."

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a similar point, saying: "Republicans want to work with the President to pass a clean troop funding bill, and it's my hope that both parties can work together to pass a bill without any strings attached that would tie the hands of our commanders on the ground as well as any unnecessary or extraneous spending."

So if Obama wants a clean bill, and Republicans want a clean bill, why wouldn't it be clean? Because Hill Democrats will actually be writing the measure, and there is no guarantee at this point that they will resist the urge to pile on extra spending. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, has said he wants to add billions of dollars for equipment he believes is vital, perhaps for a refueling tanker program that has been stalled for years. With Defense Secretary Robert Gates having just outlined a Pentagon budget plan that would cut some politically popular programs, some members may try to strike early by shoving funding for those projects into the supplemental.

And on a separate front from the earmarks fight, Democrats may very well want to attach some of those "strings" McConnell warned against. In her own statement on the supplemental, Pelosi said Congress would "engage in a dialogue with the Administration on appropriate benchmarks to measure the success of our investments."

With some members looking to add extra money Obama doesn't want, and others pushing to add conditions for the money to be spent, it sounds like the president will have a tough time getting as "clean" a bill as he wants, and Republicans may not get a bill they feel they can support. Without Republicans on board, Obama would have to worry more about defections by anti-war Democrats who really don't want to give him any more money for the wars, period.

Obama wants the supplemental bill to be different from the omnibus measure, and it may well be different in one key respect -- it could be harder to pass.

By Ben Pershing  |  April 10, 2009; 3:20 PM ET
Categories:  Agenda , Branch vs. Branch , Purse Strings  
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It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | April 10, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

This will be especially interesting as supplemental bills bypass the "normal" balanced budget discussions.

Posted by: sdexnorva | April 13, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

It is always amazing that a bill that has a specific purpose can become totally cluttered with earmarks. It is like the Alice in Wonderland tea party but it actually is the way business is done. This way of doing "business' could only occur in a dictatorship or in our congress.
My granddaughters at age 7 ,can understand the unfairness of these behaviors.
If you want a military bill do not add a freeway overpass in Illinois or a subsidy to a pottery company in Minn. State what,why and how much to support the milaitary effort period.
Seems simple and obvious? Why does the congress need a letter to explain this?

Posted by: ephetsgma | April 14, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Self interest. Almost impossible to avoid by our elected for the simple reason they are continually trying to add to their popularity and prospects for further election terms by buying the good will of those with the money to support them in their political positions. Raising re-election money is probably the most important item on our elected's Adgenda from day one of his/her election.

Posted by: pax926 | April 15, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

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