Obama Faces Democratic Opposition On Earmarks

President Barack Obama's new proposals for earmarks are getting flak from his own party. Congressional Democrats — backed by some Republicans — say the Constitution gives them the power of the purse, and they'll use it as they see fit.

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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.

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Obama Signs 'Imperfect' Spending Bill

President Obama on Wednesday signed what he called an "imperfect" $410 billion omnibus spending bill, while calling on Congress to enact changes that will limit the ability of lawmakers to put pet projects in future measures.

"I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill because it's necessary for the ongoing functions of government," he said.

Obama said the projects, known as earmarks, are often wasteful and without merit.

Obama called on Congress to place notice of earmarks on the sponsoring lawmaker's Web site in advance to give the public an opportunity to judge their merits and to require competitive bidding for earmarks that involve the work of private companies.

The president also said earmarks should not be traded for political favors, and called on Congress and the White House to work together to eliminate earmarks with no legitimate public purpose.

The spending package includes about 8,000 earmarks. It funds federal agencies through the rest of the fiscal year, which continues through September.

The changes Obama outlined build upon those initiated by Republicans in 2006 and strengthened by Democrats two years ago. Those changes mandated that every earmark and its sponsor must be made public.

Most of the government has been running on a stopgap funding bill set to expire at midnight Wednesday. Refusing to sign the newly completed spending bill would force Congress to pass another bill to keep the government running or else shut down.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

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