STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's stay on Capitol Hill for a moment, because when it comes to government spending bills, President Obama has promised a change: He promised to clean up the earmarking process that allows lawmakers to insert pet projects. That was the promise, but you might not know it from the defense bill that's making its way through the Senate this week. Despite the president's call, the measure still sets aside billions of dollars for projects that the military says it doesn't need. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
HORSLEY: President Obama says if the U.S. wants a 21st century military without breaking the bank, it needs to change the way it spends money. That means confronting lobbyists who push for unnecessary weapons, and the lawmakers who insist on bringing home the bacon, even when it's loaded with fat. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Arizona last month, Mr. Obama promised to do right by the troops and the taxpayers.
President BARACK OBAMA: If a project doesn't support our troops, if it does not make America safer, we will not fund it. If a system doesn't perform, we will terminate it. And if Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with a bunch of pork, I will veto it.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama said cutting wasteful spending is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue, but something all Americans should be able to agree on.
Pres. OBAMA: I'm glad I have as a partner in this effort a great veteran, a great Arizonan, and a great American who has shown the courage to stand and fight this waste: Senator John McCain.
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HORSLEY: McCain made fighting earmarks a centerpiece of his unsuccessful presidential bid, and he's still fighting. On the Senate floor this week, McCain expressed alarm, dismay and disgust at a defense bill packed with nearly 800 earmarks. He says the pet project sewed corruption among politicians and mistrust by the public.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Check the polls. The trust and confidence on the part of the American people in the Congress of the United States is at an all time low, and deservedly so.
HORSLEY: McCain said unless the earmarks are removed, Mr. Obama should make good on his threat to veto the defense bill. But anxious to protect war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, the president appears to have pocketed his veto pen. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs didn't risk offending any senators when asked about the bill.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): Well, look, I know that some of the most egregious spending on behalf of the administration was and is addressed.
HORSLEY: To be sure, the administration succeeded in removing some of the most costly items: more F-22 fighter planes, an alternative engine for the joint strike fighter and a new presidential helicopter.
The earmarks that remain represent a tiny fraction of overall defense spending. That fraction still totals more than $2.6 billion, though. Budget watchdog Ryan Alexander with the group Taxpayers for Common Sense says the president needs to get tougher.
Ms. RYAN ALEXANDER (Taxpayers for Common Sense): The good news is he is saying, look, I need to see real change. The bad news is I don't think he's drawing a hard enough line. This is the defense bill. We have tons of national security needs. We're at war in two countries. We can't afford to send $1 to a project that we don't need, isn't done by the best vendor, isn't exactly what we need right now.
HORSLEY: Last spring, the president said private companies that receive earmarks should first have to go through competitive bidding. But while the House went along with that this year, the Senate did not. Alexander warns that without such competition, private companies may be rewarded for political connections and contributions rather than merit.
Ms. ALEXANDER: For the president to set a standard, say that he's going to really draw a hard line and back off a little bit is unfortunate. This is not as much progress as we'd like to see.
HORSLEY: McCain warns that unless what he calls egregious practices are stopped early in an administration, they never will be.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
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