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Bush Denounces Congress for Earmark Spending

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The recent accord between the Bush administration and congressional leaders was dashed Monday night, as President George Bush denounced lawmakers for overspending and Democratic leaders returned the critique.

Using his final State of the Union address as the venue, Bush threatened to veto any spending bill that contains more than $9 billion in earmarks — the funds pushed by individual lawmakers for pet projects, often benefiting their own districts.

Furthermore, Bush said he will direct all federal agencies - under an executive order he plans to issue Tuesday - to ignore any future earmark not explicitly approved by Congress. The administration contends the decree will eliminate the common practice of hiding earmarks in the reports that often accompany legislation, but don’t appear in the legislation itself.

“If these items are truly worth public funding,” Bush said, “Congress should debate them openly and hold them to a public vote.”

Most congressional Republicans applauded the call to rein in spending. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, said the moves would go a long way to stem lawmakers’ “pork-barrel” projects. “It’s time to reform the appropriations process and control other spending in Washington,” Grassley said in a statement.

But Democrats were quick to remind the president of his complicity in the process.

“President Bush today said that earmarks have tripled in number over the last decade,” Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement Monday, “but he forgot to tell the public that he signed those earmarks into law.”

Byrd, universally considered the chamber’s premier constitutional scholar, also defended the earmark process as a vital legislative branch function. “The Constitution grants to the Congress the power over the purse,” he said. “The operation of the government — to enforce our laws, to serve our people, to protect our liberties — depends upon the Congress providing the funds necessary to do so.”

The annual appropriations process is often marked by conflicts between the White House and Congress. But the president has been particularly critical of congressional spending since the Democrats took control of both chambers a year ago. In a game of budgetary chicken played out last month, Bush succeeded in eliminating $22 billion in domestic spending sought by Democrats. Still, the sweeping appropriations package that was ultimately approved contained more than 11,000 earmarks totaling more than $17 billion.

Bush on Monday promised to veto any spending bill carrying half the number or cost of the earmarks in last year’s bill. His statement drew hearty applause from most Republican lawmakers.

But some are skeptical of policy-makers’ appetites to limit their spending. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a leading budget hawk, wondered why Bush would hinge his veto threat on a policy that still tolerates thousands of earmarks. Instead, in a statement, Coburn noted, Congress should “lead by example and pursue earmark reform by not seeking earmarks [at all].”

Coburn, who has often riled members of his own party with his budget-process criticisms, pointed out that the spending issue is less partisan than it is often portrayed. Bush’s focus on earmark reform, Coburn said, “is an indictment of Congress and, in particular, his own party. Congress could cut earmarks in half if Republicans in Congress stopped asking for earmarks. The party of limited government and personal responsibility should not have to look to the president to save it from itself.”

There are signs both sides are ready to take steps in that direction. Last week, House Republicans delivered a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urging Democrats to halt the earmark process and establish a bipartisan oversight committee.

“The earmark process in Congress has become a symbol of a broken Washington,” the Republicans wrote. “Wasteful pork-barrel spending has outraged American families and eroded public confidence in our institution. Both of our parties bear responsibility for this failure.”

With the approval ratings of both Congress and President Bush hovering at 30 percent, both sides are treading lightly in the first month of this election year. In a glaring break from the partisan bickering that marked most of last year, the White House and the Democratic majority Congress came together last week to announce agreement on legislation they say will pump some life into the sagging economy. Central to that plan, low- and middle-income workers would receive direct rebates of between $300 and $600.

That proposal faces an uncertain future, however, after Senate Democrats introduced a plan of their own Monday. That proposal includes a number of provisions favored by party leaders but dropped in negotiations with Republicans. For example, the Senate plan, introduced by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), would extend federal unemployment insurance by 13 weeks. It would also grant rebates to some seniors receiving Social Security.

Bush warned in Monday’s speech, however, that such additions would either delay or derail the delicate bipartisan compromise, “and neither option is acceptable.”

In an interview with FOX News Monday morning, New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, was optimistic that the stimulus package could usher in a new era of bipartisan cooperation. “I think the stimulus package is a good opening shot,” Schumer said, “because it shows that Democrats can work together with Republicans [and] the president can work together with Congress. Neither side gets everything they want, but we get something done.”

Later in the day, however, that bipartisanship fell apart when the Democrats blocked passage of a controversial wire-tapping bill. With the administration’s surveillance authority set to expire Feb. 1, lawmakers must pursue a short-term extension of the existing program.

“In short,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), “the Senate faces a legislative logjam that ensures that we will let the Feb. 1 deadline come and go without making a reasonable effort to enact a law.”

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